Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war.

As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

But not all promises can be kept.”

Characters

A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.

Plot

The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.

Other

I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.

Conclusion

You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.


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Review pending, but I LOVED it.

Haven’t read yet, but at this point, I’d buy anything she writes.


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Book Review: Far from the Tree

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while.

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

“Let’s go to Barnes & Noble and get you a book,” my grandmother said after visiting her and her sister. In my head I think I’m way too old for that, but FREE BOOKS so YES PLEASE.

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while. My relatives, being who they are, responded to my choice with, “That’s a paperback; go grab some more.” Thus, I will review the five books they bought me that day as soon as I can get through them all.

I love my family.

Back Cover Description

“Grace, Maya, & Joaquin are siblings who are unaware of one another’s existence, until Grace gives up her own child for adoption—and feels compelled to seek out her biological family.

Maya, Grace’s loudmouthed younger sister, is quick to search for traces of herself among her bio siblings. But she’s not quite sure where it is that she belongs. And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, never found a family. In Joaquin’s life, there are no heroes, and secrets are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him. Can these strangers conquer their fears, share their hearts, and trust in each other enough to become a family?”

Characters

Each of the siblings has their own well-developed personality—the goodie-two-shoes, the loudmouth, the stoic protector. Despite these differences, they discover random ways they are similar to each other. For example, they all like mayo on their French fries. I liked that the author included a lesbian character whose plotline did not focus on her identity or on people’s acceptance of her identity. It is a part of her character, woven naturally in, but Maya has her own story.

Plot

The cover’s description doesn’t do this story justice. The plot is far more complex and beautiful than it implies. I particularly liked Grace’s story. Grace is a pregnant teen, but the story didn’t revolve around her discovering her pregnancy, panicking, and deciding what to do about it. Instead, the story begins with her reminiscing about the decision she already took and explores how it affects her afterward.

Even while “Peach” is in her womb, Grace’s love for her is clear. She eats healthful foods and hunts for the perfect adoptive parents. After she gives her child up for adoption, she misses her in a physical way that her own parents can’t understand. This prompts her to search for her own biological mother. She wants to know she isn’t alone in feeling this way. She wants to know she made the right choice.

Benway treats each of the sibling’s plotlines with the same respect for the complexity and beauty of the messy thing we call family. The story is one of hope, healing, and love, and I enjoyed every word.

Writing Style

Benway writes a lot of reflective thinking into her prose, which usually annoys me, but she gets away with it because that panicked overthinking fit well with her teenage protagonists. I like that she sometimes describes feelings with colors.

Other

I love the title of this book, and, though hard to look at, I like the cover too.

Conclusion

Book I cannot praise this book enough for its portrayal of what it means to be a family—unconditional support, forgiveness, and love. It takes an unflinching look into life’s greatest complexities, and instead of trying to simplifying them with platitudes and easy answers, appreciates the beauty of a mess.


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Shadows in the Water

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—no matter who gets hurt.

Shadows in the Water by Jo-Anne Tomlinson

I don’t normally read a ton of suspense, but after beta reading more of it recently, I’m developing a taste for it. This is my favorite of the ones I’ve read.

Description

Someone tried to murder India Peters, but that’s not even the biggest news in the beachside community of Army Bay. Brandy Hamilton, desired and despised queen bee, disappeared the same night.


When India wakes up, her memories are missing along with her childhood-friend-turned-hated-nemesis. Somewhere in her foggy brain lies the answer to how India went from social pariah to member of Brandy’s elite circle: Brandy’s sister Sadie, the good twin. Rory, the track star. Ben, the hot boyfriend. Avery, the rich douche. Elton, the cocky loner.


But things in Army Bay are only getting stranger. Her parents, her frenemies, the girl she likes, even the police—they all know more than they’re willing to share. To uncover the truth, India will have to expose the town’s dark secrets no matter who gets hurt.

Characters

Biracial and bisexual India Peters is a cynical teen who learned the hard way that high school can be hell, but she wakes up to discover she’d become someone else. A popular someone who cares about things like free-range chickens. India’s investigation into the past helps her define her present—which India is she? The pariah and stoner or the popular progressive?

Her quest for the truth leads her to interact with the town’s characters. Each person has plenty of motive to harm Brandy, but not everyone is what India expected. The large cast kept me guessing throughout the story, but each character is so unique and well-rounded that I didn’t struggle to keep them straight as I have in similar books.

Plot

With every clue India uncovers come at least a dozen more questions. The more she uncovers about the towns people and their competing motives, the more dangerous her investigation becomes. Even the police are suspect. The plot twists and turns as it careens toward the finish at a pace fast enough to give the reader whiplash, but not so fast as to neglect character development and tension building.

Writing Style

With sharp wit, sarcasm, and an unapologetic use of the f-word, Tomlinson captures an edgy teen voice that fits perfectly with the tension in the story. The prose is clear with creative descriptions that set the tone, a pleasure to read.

Conclusion

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—even when her investigation leads her way too close to home. With a large cast of shady characters and enough twists to keep the reader guessing, Shadows in the Water is an excellent addition to teen suspense. I couldn’t put it down.


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Book Review: Home Front

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set, but I still feel its themes are relevant today.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set. For me, the most interesting part was reflecting on how much has changed in American culture since then.

Cover Description

“Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life—children, careers, bills, chores—even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a batter of his own—for everything that matters to his family.”

Characters

So many books aim for a “strong female lead” by putting breasts on a masculine character, but Jolene has a refreshingly feminine strength. As a mother, her number one priority is her daughters. She takes on a great emotional toll to spare them pain, and she sacrifices her personal preferences to keep the family running. She is strong, yet vulnerable, feeling intense emotions even as she perseveres through her trials. Jolene is three-dimensional, a shining example resilience.

Including Michael’s perspective prevents the reader from picking sides in their marital disputes. He is flawed, and his struggle with being Mr. Mom resonates with anyone who has ever worked with children. My one critique is that by the end of the book, he seemed too perfect. I have serious doubts that a man would be so persistent given Jolene’s repeated refusal of reconciliation.

Would I have said that had I read the book in 2012 when it was published? Has my opinion of people declined so much? I’m not sure. It seems to me the more “connected” we are through technology, the shorter our attention spans, and the less effort we are willing to put into our relationships. Jolene and Michael’s marriage is an example of love as a choice, of the extensive hard work needed to last until death do us part. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that kind of love very often in times where a minor disagreement will lead to “unfriending.” Reading this book makes be think we could all use a dose of the past.

Plot

The story falls into two parts: Jolene’s deployment and her adjustment to coming home. Interspersed are Michael’s struggles as a functionally single parent. The central conflict is Jolene being deployed to Iraq, and Michael’s lack of support for her. For me, it was interesting to reflect on what dominated the headlines back then compared fills our screens now.

Overall, the plot is well-paced, somewhat predictable, but that isn’t a bad thing in a character-driven novel. I enjoyed watching Jolene and Michael grow as individuals and as a couple.

Writing Style

Hannah’s descriptions are evocative without being too high-brow. She has a talent for showing the passage of time via small things—flowers blooming, weather patterns, characters growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Her prose is clear and easy to read without lacking substance.

Miscellaneous

I read this book long after it was published, but I still found it relevant. The themes of reconciliation, supporting your spouse despite disagreements, love as a choice, and coming home both mentally and physically are as pertinent today as they were in 2012.

The story draws attention to mental health in a relatable way that is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because we have made great strides in PTSD research and management since this book was set. Discouraging because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, even though increased isolation and false-faced social media have led to an even greater need to destroy that stigma.

Conclusion

As usual, you can’t go wrong with a book by Kristin Hannah. With her characteristic clear and beautiful writing style, Hannah explores the intimate landscape of human relationships. The themes of this moving story continue to speak to the heart.



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Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

This one has languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available. I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This one languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available.

Cover Description

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.


“Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.


“But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.”

Character

Eleanor Oliphant is a social sore thumb reminiscent of Ove in one of my favorite novels, A Man Called Ove. Honeyman brings her protagonist’s voice to life vividly, and she doesn’t shy away from poking fun at the conventions we consider “normal.” Spending time with Eleanor and her new misfit friends is delightful, a refreshing look at friendship.

Eleanor’s backstory is much darker than the description implies, but it adds to Eleanor’s humanity and leaves her with plenty of room to grow.

Plot

The plot follows Eleanor as she becomes infatuated with a musician she’s never met and tries to change herself so he will fall in love with her. Along the way, she and Raymond save an elderly man’s life, and Eleanor finds herself straddling two new worlds: the musician’s—which she longs to enter—and Raymond’s, into which she is thrust unawares. Having spent most of her life lonely, the choice is overwhelming. Along the way, she learns about herself, her past, and her capacity for friendship.

Overall, the plot moves at a glacial pace with the author sprinkling tidbits of Eleanor’s backstory throughout mundane scenes—most often, a lunch date. If you are the type of reader who needs quick-paced action sequences, this book is not for you, but I enjoyed Eleanor’s lengthy descriptions of her surroundings and circumstances. The joy of reading this story is being immersed in Eleanor’s unique perspective.

Writing Style

Honeyman’s great strength is capturing Eleanor’s quirks on the page and immersing the reader in her perspective. The prose overflowed with details and sophisticated vocabulary, and was a little superior in tone, just like Eleanor. The description is so thorough that I didn’t care about the plot. I just enjoyed experiencing the world through Eleanor’s eyes.

Theme

In contemporary fiction, I enjoy books with strong themes, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine did not disappoint. Themes of loneliness, friendship, and healing from past trauma permeated the prose. I like that the author thought to include these struggles in a relatively young protagonist—Eleanor is only thirty—and that none of her coworkers suspected. We often think of the elderly when we discuss loneliness, but even in the age of social media—and sometimes because of it—young people also experience a dearth of human contact and affection. Eleanor’s story shines a non-judgmental light on mental illness and provides a hopeful portrayal of treatment.

Conclusion

I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture. Eleanor’s quirky personality colliding with Raymond’s gentle nature provides everything necessary for an entertaining story. Their unconventional friendship demonstrates the power of simple kindness and gives hope for a world in which loneliness is a bigger problem than ever.

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Book Review: The Alice Network

Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

At my last visit to the library of Grandma, I mentioned I never tire of WWII books. She came over the next day and handed me a stack of them, including this one.

Back Cover Description

“1947. In the chaotic aftermath of WWII, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and head to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth… no matter where it leads.”

Characters

I loved both the main characters. As an unwed, pregnant woman in 40s, Charlie faces significant challenges. She has a head for numbers, not the surrounding men believe her. She approaches life like a math problem, always trying to solve for x, but she soon discovers that life is not so straightforward. Through the course of the story, she grows from an uncertain disappointment to her parents into a confident young woman with plans of her own.

Eve also breaks many stereotypes. As a speech therapist, I appreciate the author’s accurate representation of stuttering. I love how Eve turns her stammer into an asset and takes advantage of people’s assumption that she is simple. Eve reminds us all that behind every cranky old neighbor lady is a story we could never imagine. In a culture where we often dismiss our elders in favor of youth-worship, Eve’s determination and courage are an inspiration.

Plot

Her entire family assumes Rose is another war tragedy, but Charlie recruits Eve to continue the search. In an alternate timeline, Eve works as a spy during WWI. As they continue searching for Charlie’s lost cousin, their stories intertwine.

Upon reading the supplemental information in the back, I was surprised to learn just how much of the story was factual. Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

Writing Style

The story alternates between Charlie and Eve’s perspectives and timelines. Charlie tells her tale in the first person, while Eve’s narrative is third-person. An odd difference, but not inhibitive. The suspense left between shifting perspectives could have been more intense; it took a while for the story to hook me.

Miscellaneous

I love the cover, especially since the car plays such a huge role in the plot. My grandmother’s paper has pages that alternate in width, giving it an old-school touch. At first, I enjoyed the novelty, but I soon came to hate it. The inconsistent page size makes it impossible to page through to see how many pages remain in a chapter.

Conclusion

This book smashes stereotypes and highlights the oft-ignored role of women during the two world wars. The protagonists are loveable yet flawed. While the story took some time to build suspense, it left me wanting to learn more. I recommend this book to fans of WWII fiction and to anyone wanting an engaging way to learn more about women’s role in the wars.  


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Book Review: Someone’s Story

This thought provoking young adult novel is a poignant portrayal of mental health and the power of friendship.

Someone’s Story by B.A. Bellec

I encountered this book through an author networking site and decided to give it a read.

Description

Someone’s Story is the tale of a teenager who refers to himself as Someone. A new school gives him a clean slate, but also triggers his anxiety. The story follows him as he makes friends, makes mistakes, and makes peace with his own troubled mind.

Character

Someone is a well-rounded character, flawed but growing. His struggles are personal, yet universal, and his journey of perseverance and acceptance is deeply moving. His group of “weirdos” are a fantastic representation of the power of friendship to overcome adversity.

I have mixed feelings about the protagonist referring to himself as Someone, implying that this could happen to anyone. I can see this approach being successful in two different ways. In one sense, the protagonist’s anxiety causes him to avoid attention. His previous struggles with social skills cause him to fear being “that guy.” He wants to be “normal,” but his weirdo friends teach him that nobody is normal.

In an opposite sense, the self-designation of Someone alludes to his goal to “be somebody.” He doesn’t want to disappoint his father, doesn’t want to waste his life. To that end, he pursues challenging goals, starting with running.

Unfortunately, I feel like the author was reaching for both these concepts and caught neither. Neither is sufficiently emphasized to stand out as a central message. Furthermore, the character isn’t generic enough to be just “someone.” For one, he is male. To make it truly generic, the author could have edited out the mild romantic parts. As another point, it isn’t just anybody who becomes a passionate advocate for blonde roast coffee and 90s movies. Lastly, I don’t buy that the friends who got close enough to him to share their deep dark secrets wouldn’t have learned his name. At the very least, a teacher calling attendance would have revealed it. The author could have kept the name a secret from the reader, but implied the other characters knew it. Instead, the protagonist introduces himself to his new friends as Someone, and no one probes the reasoning behind that choice even after getting to know him.

I’m glad the character wasn’t a generic someone. I found my eyes skipping over the dialogue tags to spare my mind from thinking of him that way. I cannot relate to an abstract, generic homo sapien, but I can relate to the narrator’s crusade against the dark roast, even though I myself do not drink caffeine. These details make him human, which makes him relatable. A real name would have helped.

That said, the choice of Someone made me think enough to write five paragraphs. Perhaps that’s the point. This book is nothing if not thought provoking. My head was spinning for hours after finishing it.

Plot

I made the mistake of reading reviews before picking up this book. A few of them mentioned the book started off slow. I’m not sure whether I would have come to that conclusion without the priming, but I will say the first third of the story is fairly low drama. Having been raised reading The Lord of the Rings, I don’t mind a slow read, so this wasn’t an issue for me.

The plot follows Someone as he makes the most of his fresh start at a new school. His mental health challenges him, but as he gets closer to his friends, he realizes he isn’t the only “weirdo.” He gets into trouble, makes mistakes, and learns from them like any teenager, though the challenges he faces at the end are well “above the call of duty.” There are some odd scenes involving drugs, but they fit with the overall tone.

Writing Style

I typically abhor the stream-of-consciousness style of narration, but Bellec uses it to spectacular effect. Rather than spewing whatever random observations come to mind, the protagonist’s thoughts are sharp and relevant, just enough to really get into his perspective. The tone in the beginning of the novel is engaging, almost haunting. I quickly found myself tuned to the rhythm of the words.

Books like this are often written from the author’s own experience, which can lead to a lack of continuity as the author fixates on “how it really happened” and lectures the reader on the lessons learned. Not so with Someone’s Story. The story has a compelling structure, and Bellec does a wonderful job weaving the life lessons into the narrative such that the reader learns them alongside the protagonist. Someone makes many profound observations about life, but at no point does the prose read like a self-help book.

Theme

For me, the big winner of this novel is its theme. In a world where everyone has 800 Facebook friends but no one to pick them up at the airport, the value of genuine friendship can never be overstated. The protagonist’s goal is to make friends, but he takes it a step further than he ever has by getting to know them beyond a surface level. This enormous risk causes both him and his friends a great deal of pain, but it also teaches him about acceptance, forgiveness, perseverance, and perspective. In the end, these friendships help him overcome his mental health challenges.

Conclusion

This artfully written novel tears down our social media-dominated definition of friendship in favor of a deeper connection by which “weirdos” can band together to overcome adversity. A flawed group of teens, struggling to play with the cards the world dealt them, learn to accept themselves and to support each other as they journey through life’s most awkward phase. The plot progresses slowly through the first third of the book, but the writing style and tone are engaging from page one. While I would have preferred a named character, the protagonist’s self-designation as “Someone” is thought provoking. His struggles with mental health serve as a poignant demonstration of strength growing from vulnerability. Overall, this insightful story is a shining example of perseverance and the power of friendship.


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Book Review: Lock and Key

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded. Apparently, a college group met to decide which books to include in a literature course. One young woman joined the committee with the sole goal of preventing them from selecting Sarah Dessen’s work. Dessen tweeted how hurt she was, not realizing that in doing so she would unleash an attack mob. Dessen’s fans virtually harassed the young woman until she had to change her entire online presence. Dessen later apologized, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books, so the other day at the library, I picked up this one.

Description

Ever since her mom abandoned her, Ruby has been living a lie, biding her time alone in the decrepit yellow house until she turns eighteen and can legally live by herself. Her precious independence dissolves when the landlords report her to a social worker. Sent to live with her wealthy sister Cora, who ditched her and her mother ten years ago, Ruby finds herself thrust into a new world: huge house, private school, expensive clothes…maybe even a future in college?

Her new world shifts her perspective of her old world, and Ruby befriends the friendly-to-a-fault popular boy next door, Nate. As their friendship grows, she realizes she isn’t the only one living a lie.

Characters

Ruby views the world with typical adolescent skepticism—don’t get close to anyone, don’t get hurt—but she is not so closed that she cannot evaluate her perspective when confronted. She is guarded, yet vulnerable.

Nate is the too-handsome, too-perfect type I usually hate, but Dessen gets away with it by making his inner life far from perfect. The other minor characters each have their quirks. I liked them, though I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain that the smart guy is a braces-faced dork. Smart people don’t always need braces and glasses and lessens in social skills.

Okay, stepping off my soapbox now.

Plot

This is a character-driven novel. Most of the plot forces Ruby to come to terms with her past. Her decisions are a battle between old Ruby and new Ruby. She makes many mistakes, but uses the lessens learned to form new relationships. These insights allow her to reconcile with her sister and to pick up on what is happening with Nate.

Writing Style

Dessen’s prose is clean and simple, appropriate for the target audience. Her tone is approachable, even though the book takes on multiple difficult topics. To me, Ruby’s “life lessons” felt force-fed to the reader, giving the theme a patronizing air. Perhaps the writing style irked the ill-fated critic. It lacks the intensity and sharpness of, say, Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins. At no point did I pause after reading a sentence to just admire its construction, but neither did I stumble over any grammatical garden paths or misused words.

Miscellaneous

There are many variations of the cover design. I like them all about the same.

Conclusion

Should this win the Nobel Prize for Literature? No, but I don’t think it’s trying to. Dessen’s prose may not be swoon-worthy, but its easy-on-the-brain style makes it perfect for curling up on the couch and escaping for a couple hours. Her characters are quirky, yet relatable. The topic is serious, yet approachable, and the themes are universal. All in all, I am grateful to the critic for bringing this author to my attention. I will happily read another book by her.

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Book Review: Burned and Smoke

Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving.

Burned and Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

This duology was my first experience with books in verse. I will definitely read more.

Back Cover Description for Burned

“Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, Pattyn Von Stratten starts asking questions—about God, a woman’s role, sex, love. She experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control. Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance—until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go.”

Characters

Pattyn, the eldest daughter in a large Mormon family, starts questioning her family’s faith. She already wrestled with her “good Mormon father’s” alcoholism, so when teenage hormones hit and she develops sexual feelings, those questions increase. She doesn’t want the traditional role of Mormon mother of as-many-as-possible. When her genuine questions are answered with hypocrisy, she rebels.

While the author portrays Pattyn as a flawed human with sincere questions, Ethan, the boy she meets on the ranch in Nevada, leaves much to be desired. Like many leading males in romance novels, Ethan is too perfect. Good-looking and considerate, he doesn’t struggle as Pattyn does. The romance lacks chemistry at the beginning. There is no reason for Ethan to pursue Pattyn other than her looks, though the author implies otherwise.

Perhaps I am picky, but too-perfect guys annoy me. Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Plot

The story is more character-driven than plot-driven; it centers on Pattyn’s questions about God and love. Poignant and beautifully written poems allow the reader inside her private contemplations as various events shape her beliefs. The plot intensifies dramatically toward the end, which is refreshing but not satisfying. That is why I went straight to the sequel, Smoke after finishing.

Smoke picks up where Burned leaves off, but adds a subplot for Pattyn’s younger sister, Jackie, whose rape is covered up by the LDS community, including her own mother. Smoke built much more suspense throughout the plot, though I don’t think it satisfied the theme of redemption and second loves. Both love stories felt too hasty for me.

I found myself disappointed with the endings. Pattyn questions and rejects her faith, but her new beliefs are ill-defined and center around her love life. She abandons the LDS church to escape their oppressive patriarchy, but then she latches on to Ethan. Perhaps it is because I am religious myself, but I think a boyfriend is a poor substitute for God. I’m not saying she should have converted to another religion, but I wish she had found her own principles, her own foundation that didn’t depend on anyone else, especially not some boy.

A boyfriend is a poor substitute for God.

Writing Style

This is the first I’ve read from Ellen Hopkins, and I adored her writing. Her poems are lyrical without being esoteric. A non-poetry fan could read these books and follow the story with ease. She packs a great deal of power into a few words, especially the poems where she pulls out keywords to form their own sentence. Both Burned and Smoke were beautiful reads.

Conclusion

Burned and Smoke tackle a difficult subject—abuse, rape, and trauma recovery. The content wasn’t too graphic for me, but you must use your own discretion. Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving, each book took only a couple hours to read—one advantage of poetry is brevity. Overall, I would recommend these books, provided you’re not squeamish about the content. I got them as a gift, but I wouldn’t regret spending money on such beautiful writing. Buy both though. Once you finish Burned, you’ll want the closure offered in Smoke.


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