Review: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Jorgeana Marie, Will Damron, Cassandra Morris, Michael Crouch
Length: 9 hours (391 pages)
Publisher: Philomel Books; Penguin Random House Audio
Release Date: February 2, 2016
Source: Library
Content Warnings: rape/sexual assault, war, violence, death of loved ones

SYNOPSIS

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks. 

MY THOUGHTS

This was a very compelling historical fiction book about an overlooked piece of World War II history: refugees in Germany fleeing from the Soviet invasion at the end of the war and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlaff. I had previously never heard of this tragedy even though it is the deadliest single ship sinking in maritime history.

The narrative is told in short chapters that alternate between 4 POVs. While each character comes from a very different background and was affect by the war in different ways, they were all running away from something and running to something else. The characters developed a tenuous trust as they traveled together, but tensions were always high because every had dangerous secrets.

This book portrays a stark view of the horrors of war with no time for people to process trauma while trying to survive. I think Ruta Sepetys does a fantastic job of making difficult subject matter accessible to young adult readers.

Review: My True Love Gave to Me ed. by Stephanie Perkins

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆
Title: My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories
Editor: Stephanie Perkins
Authors: Stephanie Perkins, Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de la Pena, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Laini Taylor, Kiersten White
Genre: Holiday romance
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: 13 hours (321 pages)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin; Listening Library
Release Date: October 9, 2014
Source: Library (Libby app)
Recommended for fans of: holiday books, short story anthologies, any of the included authors

SYNOPSIS

If you love holiday stories, holiday movies, made-for-TV-holiday specials, holiday episodes of your favorite sitcoms and, especially, if you love holiday anthologies, you’re going to fall in love with My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by twelve bestselling young adult writers, edited by international bestselling author Stephanie Perkins. Whether you enjoy celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, Winter Solstice or New Year’s there’s something here for everyone. So curl up by the fireplace and get cozy. You have twelve reasons this season to stay indoors and fall in love.

MY THOUGHTS

This is a really sweet collection of holiday romance stories that rounds up several well-known YA authors. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a fantasy tales were included in this anthology when I expected it to be exclusively contemporary. I also appreciated that not every story was about Christmas (although the majority were). As with most anthologies like this, there were some short stories I loved, some that were duds, and most were somewhere in between, but I enjoyed this collection much more than most of the full-length holiday novels I tried to read this year. Below are my individual ratings for each story:

“Midnights” by Rainbow Rowell ☆☆☆☆
“The Lady and the Fox” by Kelly Link ☆☆
“Angels in the Snow” by Matt de la Pena ☆☆☆.5
“Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me” by Jenny Han ☆☆
“It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” by Stephanie Perkins ☆☆☆☆
“Your Temporary Santa” by David Levithan ☆☆
“Krampuslauf” by Holly Black ☆☆☆☆.5
“What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth?” by Gayle Forman ☆.5
“Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus” by Myra McEntire ☆
“Welcome to Christmas, CA” by Kiersten White ☆☆☆.5
“Star of Bethlehem” by Ally Carter ☆☆☆
“The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer” by Laini Taylor ☆☆☆☆

Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: Leave the World Behind
Author: Rumaan Alam
Genre: Literary Fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: ALC
Length: ~7.5 hours (241 pages)
Publisher: Ecco
Release Date: October 6, 2020
Source: Libro.fm
Recommended for fans of: pre-apocalyptic fiction

SYNOPSIS

A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong.

Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

Suspenseful and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel is keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped—and unexpected new ones are forged—in moments of crisis.

MY THOUGHTS

This book will not be for everyone, but I thought it was incredible. Another review of this book introduced me to the term “pre-apocalyptic,” and that is exactly what this book is. It’s about the beginning of the end of the world, but it’s also about the mundanity of everyday life and how people react to disruptions to the status quo on both small and large scales.

A family is on vacation staying at an Airbnb. Then they lose Internet and cell service. Then an older black couple claiming to be the owners of the home unexpectedly arrive with news of a blackout in New York City. But that’s it. That’s all they know. And as the next few days unfold, the tension and uncertainty increase as the characters remain physically and technologically isolated from the rest of the world.

A lot of negative reviews of this book complain that nothing happens and there’s no resolution. That’s kind of the point. The reader is given a few hints about what might be going on in the world, but just like the characters, there is no certainty. A lot of what happens is eerie, unsettling, and even horrifying, but without the ability to access news about what is going on, the characters cling to normalcy as best as they can.

I listened to this audiobook the week of the elections, and it felt a little too real. I could relate to the characters’ frustration with the lack of connection to the outside world because I was constantly checking my phone for news about the results and I was so worried something would happen and I wouldn’t know. I don’t read a lot of literary fiction, but I loved the way this beautifully written book explored issues of psychology, race, wealth, technology, and human connection.

Thank you to Libro.fm and HarperAudio for the ALC.

Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆
Title: The Vanishing Half
Author: Brit Bennet
Genre: Literary/historical fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Hardcover
Length: 343 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: June 2, 2020
Source: BOTM
Content: domestic abuse, lynching, colorism

SYNOPSIS

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

MY THOUGHTS

I do not often read literary fiction or family dramas, but I am so glad I read this book. This book is about light-skinned identical twins Stella and Desiree who go their separate ways when one decides to turn her back on her past and live life passing as a white woman, but it is about so much more than that. The beautiful writing poignantly addresses issues of race, identity, gender, sexuality, family, destiny, and the consequences of choices while following multiple generations of Vignes women through various stages of their lives.

While the book frequently switched narrators and jumped in time, I never felt lost in the story. I did, however, wish that the book was a bit longer and dug a little deeper into certain characters. I felt like I did not get to know all of the POV characters equally. The second half of the book focused extensively on Stella’s and Desiree’s daughters, but I think there was more to explore with the twins.

Review: This Is My America by Kim Johnson

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: This Is My America
Author: Kim Johnson
Genre: Contemporary/Mystery
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Length: ~9.5 hours (416 pages)
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books; Listening Library
Release Date: July 28, 2020
Source: Libro.fm Educator ALC
Recommended for Fans of: The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder
Content Warning: racism, white supremacy, hate crimes, murder, police corruption, KKK

SYNOPSIS

Dear Martin meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting YA novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system.

Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time—her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?

Fans of Nic Stone and Jason Reynolds won’t want to miss this provocative and gripping debut.

MY THOUGHTS

What an incredible debut! I loved so much about this book, which gave me vibes of The Hate U Give meets A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder.

Tracy is such an inspirational main character for young and older readers alike. A high school junior, Tracy writes a social justice column for the school paper, runs Know Your Rights workshops for her community, and tirelessly advocates to free her falsely condemned father. When Tracy’s brother is accused of murder, Tracy puts her investigative journalism skills to use to determine the truth, uncovering racist secrets and corruption in her small Texas town, including a conspiracy that may connect to her father’s case.

This Is My America illustrates the impact on families of mass incarceration and the consequences of a society that is so quick to fear and judge Black males. I appreciated how Kim Johnson included a scene of Tracy leading one of her workshops to teach readers strategies to deescalate encounters with the police. This book addresses so many important racial issues in a poignant way while offering a compelling murder mystery, a strong, relentless heroine, and a little bit of romance. I highly recommend this book to EVERYONE, and I am eagerly awaiting more from Kim Johnson.

Review: Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆
Title: Saving Ruby King
Author: Catherine Adel West
Genre: Literary fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Audiobook
Narrators: Adam Lazarre-White, Imani Parks, Kim Staunton, Lloyd Roberson II, Ron Butler, Terra Strong Lyons
Length: ~10 hours (352 pages)
Publisher: Park Row
Release Date: June 16, 2020
Source: Giveaway win
Triggers: domestic violence, attempted suicide, rape/molestation, murder

SYNOPSIS

Family. Faith. Secrets. Everything in this world comes full circle.

When Ruby King’s mother is found murdered in their home in Chicago’s South Side, the police dismiss it as another act of violence in a black neighborhood. But for Ruby, it’s a devastating loss that leaves her on her own with her violent father. While she receives many condolences, her best friend, Layla, is the only one who understands how this puts Ruby in jeopardy.

Their closeness is tested when Layla’s father, the pastor of their church, demands that Layla stay away. But what is the price for turning a blind eye? In a relentless quest to save Ruby, Layla uncovers the murky loyalties and dangerous secrets that have bound their families together for generations. Only by facing this legacy of trauma head-on will Ruby be able to break free.

An unforgettable debut novel, Saving Ruby King is a powerful testament that history doesn’t determine the present and the bonds of friendship can forever shape the future.

MY THOUGHTS

Saving Ruby King is a multigenerational family drama about a Black community on the South Side of Chicago. The Church is a powerful institution of the community and even serves as a POV character, bearing witness to the community’s secrets across generations.

This book shows how dark secrets perpetuate pain and abuse in generation after generation. After the murder of Alice King, some of the community’s ugliest secrets are brought to light.

I was sometimes confused by the jumps between narrators and across time, so I was not fully immersed in the story. I think this was a result of the format in which I read this book, so I would recommend reading the actual book instead of listening to the audio to get the most out of this story. The story includes many heavy topics and is intensely emotional with some disturbing scenes. This was a strong debut, and I look forward to future works from this author.

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: Dear Martin
Author: Nic Stone
Series: Dear Martin #1
Genre: Contemporary
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Paperback
Length: 210 pages
Publisher: Crown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: October 17, 2017
Source: Personal collection
Triggers/Content: police brutality, racism, gun violence

SYNOPSIS

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

MY THOUGHTS

This is a must read book for everyone. I flew through this in a matter of hours because the story was so unputdownable. It’s only 210 pages, but Nic Stone packs so much into the story, exploring police brutality, racial profiling, racism & micoagressions from white classmates, gang violence, and minority prejudice.

This book made me cry, it made me angry, but it ultimately left me with hope. I was so engaged and awed by the ideas in the writing that I actually underlined passages and marked up my book, which I never do outside of academic reading. Justyce’s last letter to Martin was especially poignant. I hope everyone can gain perspective and empathy from this book, and I can’t wait for the upcoming sequel Dear Justyce.

Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Genre: Contemporary
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Hardcover
Length: 444 pages
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: February 28, 2017
Source: Personal collection
Content Warnings: police brutality, gun violence, domestic violence

SYNOPSIS

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.

MY THOUGHTS

Everyone should read this to understand how racism and police brutality affect Black communities. I also think this book does a great job depicting how the anger and helplessness people feel when the system fails to deliver justice can turn peaceful protests into riots.

Starr is such a well rounded and deep character. She navigates multiple versions of herself at school and at home. In some ways she seems like a typical teenage girl, but she experiences multiple traumas that no teenager should have to deal with. She is resilient. She finds her voice and learns to stand up for herself, for her beliefs, and for the people she loves. She finds moments of joy with her friends and her family despite all the hardships.

This book grapples with many issues that affect Black communities, including gangs, drugs, violence, police brutality, incarceration, microagressions, racism, interracial dating, wealth, education, and opportunity. These issues are addressed with complexity and nuance.

You will feel a whole spectrum of emotions while reading this book. It will make you angry and it will make you cry, but it will also make you laugh and love. Above all, this book should make you learn.

Review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆
Title: The Poet X
Author/Narrator: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genre: Contemporary/Verse
Audience: Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Length: ~3.5 hours (357 pages)
Publisher: Harper Teen
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Source: Library (Libby app)
Recommended for Fans of: The House on Mango Street

SYNOPSIS

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

MY THOUGHTS

This is a beautifully written coming of age novel in verse exploring identity, religion, culture, gender, sexuality, family dynamics, and the power of poetry in finding your voice.

This was the first audiobook I listened to in June after realizing I needed to add more diversity to my reading choices. The audiobook is less than four hours, and it is narrated the author, making it incredibly powerful. Although brief, Xiomara’s story stuck with me, and it also helped me realize how much I miss reading poetry.

Review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

BOOK STATS

Rating: ☆☆☆☆1/2
Title: The Giver of Stars
Author: Jojo Moyes
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Adult
Format: Hardcover
Length: 390 pages
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Release Date: October 8, 2019
Source: Book of the Month
Content: domestic violence

SYNOPSIS

From the author of Me Before You, set in Depression-era America, a breathtaking story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond.

Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve hoping to escape her stifling life in England. But small-town Kentucky quickly proves equally claustrophobic, especially living alongside her overbearing father-in-law. So when a call goes out for a team of women to deliver books as part of Eleanor Roosevelt’s new traveling library, Alice signs on enthusiastically.

The leader, and soon Alice’s greatest ally, is Margery, a smart-talking, self-sufficient woman who’s never asked a man’s permission for anything. They will be joined by three other singular women who become known as the Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky.

What happens to them–and to the men they love–becomes an unforgettable drama of loyalty, justice, humanity and passion. These heroic women refuse to be cowed by men or by convention. And though they face all kinds of dangers in a landscape that is at times breathtakingly beautiful, at others brutal, they’re committed to their job: bringing books to people who have never had any, arming them with facts that will change their lives.

Based on a true story rooted in America’s past, The Giver of Stars is unparalleled in its scope and epic in its storytelling. Funny, heartbreaking, enthralling, it is destined to become a modern classic–a richly rewarding novel of women’s friendship, of true love, and of what happens when we reach beyond our grasp for the great beyond.

MY THOUGHTS

What a beautiful book about female friendship and women supporting women against the patriarchy in the rural South during the Great Depression. I grew to care so deeply for these women as they found friendship and independence as packhorse librarians. I came close to tears a few times at the injustices and prejudices these women faced, at how easy it was to rile up a small, backwater town and turn decent people against one another.

Alice’s outsider status and naivety created the perfect avenue to ease readers into the harsh setting. Margery was also a phenomenal character. The build up was a bit slow, but there were so many genuine, heartfelt moments throughout the book. I appreciated the strength and bravery of these women who wanted to live life by their own rules in a time when that was unheard of. This is the kind of story you want to savor and take your time with.