History Forgotten Is History Relived, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

sepetys-coverIn this heartbreaking story, based on real life events and characters, debut novelist Ruta Sepetys recounts the horror of life in Stalin’s prisons during World War II and after. With searing detail this gifted writer drags the reader into the horrors of life under the Soviet Union for any who came into conflict with the system. Sepetys never lets the reader look away from the brutality. She piles on the suffering and the struggle, from hunger, disease, humiliation, and deprivation, but she also relates the beauty and persistence of love even under extreme duress.  

In the early morning of June 1941, NKVD forces of the Lithuanian Army arrest 15 year old Lina, her younger brother Jonas, and their mother. Loaded onto a cattle car, along with other “traitors” to the Communist Rule in Lithuania, they are shipped to forced labor farms. From there they end up in Siberia. In both prisons they suffer brutal conditions, starvation rations and violence. Sepetys’s story, however, never descends into utter hopelessness. In the face of unspeakable treatment, Lina’s mother demonstrates for her children, and all those around them, both prisoners and guards alike, how to hold onto one’s humanity and see the world through another’s eyes, even when all seems lost.

Sepetys explains in an Author’s Note that twenty million people suffered and died in Stalin’s camps, and that this forgotten history must be remembered, because history forgotten is history relived. As she herself writes, these victims “chose love over hate and that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

In reality, though, her story reminds us of an even deeper truth: that evil and hate can only be conquered by kindness and love, even in the face of death.

Violence – V -Violence is realistically portrayed but not gratuitous or gruesomely described

Sex – S —  Sexual violence not openly portrayed but hinted at.

 

Quick Lit review: All American Boys – From the Headlines to a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature.

all-american-boys

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s book, All American Boys, tells the story behind the headlines of a racially charged clash between a young black male and a white police officer. While all the names and details are fictional, the tragic truth remains that the facts are all too real. When Rashad Butler is brutally beaten after a string of racist misjudgments on the part of a store clerk and a police officer, a community is torn in two. Because the scenario leading up to the beating is so mundane, this story provides the reader with a chance to ponder the realities of what happens when white people — store clerks, police officers and innocent bystanders –jump to conclusions and react without checking their biases, or do nothing at all.

As one boy, Rashad, a black high school jock and Junior ROTC recruit, recovers in the hospital, another, Quinn Collins, the white boy who witnessed the event, struggles to understand what he saw in the face of conflicting stories and false assumptions. The resulting soul searching and tension between each boy and his family and community shed much needed light on the implications of trying to just stay out of it. Reynolds and Kiely tell the tale honestly and deliberately, digging into both sides of the story so there can be no illusions about the reality of how racism effects the lives of all members of a community. By writing a two-person narrative, one Rashad’s, and the other Quin’s, whose family is intimately associated with the police officer who did the beating, the authors allow no room for neutrality. As the two boys struggle to understand what happened, each one recognizes that only through his own actions can anything truly change in their community or the world. Each one independently and reluctantly steps into the role he must play for the community to move toward solutions. The authors stop short of neatly tying the story up with a community healed and reconciliation on the horizon. Instead they offer testimony to the racism suffered by young black men in America. They demonstrate that  wishing for life to just get back to normal, or failing to act on the truth are no way to respond to injustice and racism. Reynolds and Kiely offer the hope that only when each of us makes the decision to respond to and question the socially entrenched racism we live in daily can things begin to change.

Violence – V – the details of the attack are not graphic;
Sex – No overt sexual activity or talk
Questionable Behavior – ?? – Several of the characters engage in or discuss underage drinking, drug use and property vandalism.

 

FIf I ever get out of hereew novels have affected me the way Eric Gansworth’s book, If I Ever Get Out of Here did. Gansworth’s insider knowledge of the way a bullied outsider feels makes reading this novel feel like witnessing a horrible crime without any way of stopping it. Set in the 1970s, Ganswrorth’s protagonist, Lewis, a Native American boy, who is learning to negotiate the disparities between life outside the rez and his pride about who he is and how much his culture means to him.

From the moment he befriends George, the army brat whose life is regulated by his own unusual circumstances (Military personnel and their families of the era suffered their own form of ostracism), Lewis’s life moves from loneliness to friendship to frustration. Few writers could pull of such a complex intermingling of an outsider’s POV and the subtle complexity of white privilege and bigotry.  In addition, Gansworth seemingly intimate knowledge of what it means to be a kid, powerless in a world ruled by clueless adults, made Lewis’s frustration and rage palpable to the point of making me want to beat up the bully myself. As the adults around him give Lewis conflicting advice, the young people in the story take matters into their own hands and the results are hardly unexpected. When confronting a bully, they prove that only the language of a bully gets through to a bully. But Gansworth’s most insightful comments took my breath away, when Lewis, the abused outsider whose only crime is being a “smart Indian” explains: we are all supporting characters in someone else’s story.

For 7th grade and up

Questionable Behavior = ?

Violence = VV

To know what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, read Eric Gansworth’s YA debut, If I Ever Get Out of Here

Fantasy Throwback Review – Jordan’s (and Sanderson’s) Wheel of Time Series, well worth the investment.

Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy adventure, The Wheel of Time series, offers readers much to appreciate beyond fantasy and adventure.  Begun in 1990, and brought to its monumental conclusion fourteen volumes later in 2012 by Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy icon in his own right, this wide-ranging narrative touches on questions of free will, destiny, the nature of evil, and the power of love, all while never flagging as a wild, world-bending, fantasy.

The story follows the lives of childhood friends, Rand al’Thor, Matrin Cauthon, Perrin Aybarra, Nynaeve al’Meara, and Egwene al’Vere who flee their small village in a hinterland outpost of the kingdom of Andor, under the protection of Moiraine Damodred, an infamous channeler of the One Power. As they journey away from their home, chased by the agents of the Dark One, a being who personifies the forces of evil, these five are joined by a cast of characters as diverse and interesting in their own right that the reader is soon immersed in a world so fascinating and unusual, that the thousands of pages it takes to read their story fly by.

Wheel of timeWhat is most interesting, however, is how Jordan and later Sanderson manage to make this enormous tale feel deeply personal. With each chapter or chapter segment, they remain firmly in the head of one point-of-view character, both the evil and the honorable, offering the reader a rare glimpse into the workings of an enemy’s heart, in addition to his or her mind. As Rand and his friends move closer with each page toward the inevitable Final Battle, the authors manage to explore topics as important as life’s purpose, the question of freedom in the face of duty and destiny, and the purpose of power. At the same time, the work contains enough humor, bloody battles and flirtatious romance that it will keep even the most demanding readers happy.

Volumes have been written by fans on wikis and fan-sites to help keep the labyrinthine tale straight, so this series needs no detailed summary from me. Well worth the effort.

Violence = +++

Sexual Tension = only mildly overt. All sexual encounters occur off camera.

For readers 12 and up.

The Scar Boys, by Len Vlahos — A rather over-long look at the heart of an anti-hero

Image  Len Vlahos’s novel, The Scar Boys, written in the guise of an extended college admissions essay, recounts the story of Harbinger (Harry) Robert Francis Jones, who was struck by lightning as a child leaving him horribly disfigured. When a new kid at school befriends him, everything changes. They form a band, and thus begins the story of his first step toward living, rather than waiting around for things to get better. The novel offers a few bright glimpses of insight into the life of an outcast, but mostly the story is about Harry being forced to really look at himself and recognize that most of what has happened to him is the result of his own unwillingness to try. Throughout the story his down-in-the-dumps, expectation of rejection made me want to scream along with his shrink, “You are such a schmuck, Harry.” The climactic confrontation with his friend feels a little contrived but nevertheless provides him with the understanding necessary to move him beyond self-pity and fortunately, the lessons he needs to learn finally sink in . A story of friendship, self-discovery, and a nod to the redemptive force that music can offer, The Scar Boys will appeal to boys, fans of music from the 1980s and those who think they have it bad, and need to be ‘slapped” back into reality.

Sex = 1/2 S

Violence = 0

Questionable Behavior = ? (mild drinking and drug use, swearing)

QuickLit Review: Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy – These teens will make your blood run cold

Vampire AcademyWith the upcoming release of the film adaptation of Richelle Mead’s popular The Vampire Academy series, many young people will be clambering to read the books. Like vampire tales of the past, these titles might best be reserved for mature readers.

Told from the perspective of Rose, a half-human, half-vampire bodyguard-in-training to Lissa, a vampire from a royal bloodline, the details of the pair’s lives are told in all their scintillating detail. Rose and Lissa share a psychic connection that allows Rose to see the world through Lissa’s eyes. The two spend most of the book talking about, thinking about, and engaging in normal teen activities, such as hooking up, partying, and avoiding school work. While the story follows the outline of other boarding school tales, the vampire conventions take their antics to a whole new level. The discussions and the depictions of school life (i.e. cliques, clothes, sexual encounters, double-standards about those encounters, sexual shaming, and the use of humans to satisfy both sexual and dietary necessities) will add to the popular teen appeal. Be prepared for some questions if you give this to anyone under 12.

Sexual activity –SS

Violence- V (The bodyguards train and fight in several well-written but brutal scenes.)

Questionable Behavior –  ??

QuickLit Review: DARIUS AND TWIG – Friendship, Struggle and Triumph in Harlem — Walter Dean Myers’s 2014 Printz Honor Winner

Dariusw and TwigWalter Dean Myers’s 2014 Printz Honor winner, Darius & Twig, joins Myers’s long list of works featuring straight-talking, genuine characters dealing with real life struggles. In his latest novel, two high school friends encourage each other’s dreams as they fight to rise above the violence, and dream-killing streets of their neighborhood in Harlem. Darius, an aspiring writer, searches for his place in the world and his voice as he explores alternative lives through his fiction.  Darius’s best friend, Twig, battles a different set of problems: family and outsiders’ demands that he settle for less and forget about going to college, despite his conviction that he has what it takes to compete nationally as a long distance runner. Myers’s skill at crafting intimate portraits of young men facing high stakes in difficult situations, invites us to see the world of guns, crack, and random crime through a different set of lenses. Instead of moralizing about the effect of the mean streets of New York on young black and Latino males, Myers paints a world of loving families, wise and caring neighbors, and the true value of friends.

Sex  = 0

Violence = V (Although the boys witness drive-by shootings, fistfights and domestic abuse, Myers keeps the descriptions PG -13 with little graphic detail.)

Questionable Behavior = ? (Darius and Twig see and hear about drug abuse and gun play, they themselves do not participate.)