July Book Haul

Great news, guys, I stuck to my goal! I’ve been trying to acquire five books or less every month in 2017 because I want to work through a bunch of unread books already on my shelves, but I think this is only the second time I’ve actually accomplished it. Because books. They’re so tempting. Here’s what’s new –>

  1. Final Girls by Riley Sager. This is my July selection from Book of the Month Club, a slasher thriller about a handful of girls who’ve all been the “last one standing” after a murder spree. Now their initial survival is making them targets again, and this time the escapees won’t all survive. I’ve already started reading this book, but I think I’ll be finishing in early August.
  2. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Here is an extra selection from BOTM that appeared on their list earlier this year, but was initially published in 1994. It fulfills a slot in my 2017 reading challenge, so I added it to my July box and will definitely be reading it before the end of the year. It takes place at the turn of the 19th century, which is one of my favorite time periods to read about, and features a psychologist (or alienist) as part of the team to solve a grisly murder.
  3. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware. I pre-ordered this book earlier this month because I’ve loved Ware’s previous two books and I wanted to get my hands on this one as soon as possible. This one’s a thriller about a body that washes up on shore and a group of women who were friends from childhood who’ve made a game out of lying. Now it seems that one of them has been lying to the others and someone’s life is at stake… I would’ve read this one already, but the mail was slow so I’m starting today.
  4. The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. I bought the first two books in this series in paperback at the end of 2016 and had kind of been waiting to read them until I could get this one to match and finish out the collection. The paperback came out this month, and now I’ve read book one and intend to be reading book two literally at any moment, so I’ll definitely be getting to this one soon. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this trilogy’s ending, and I can’t wait to see for myself how it’ll end.

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And that’s it. My short and sweet July book haul list. This is one haul I’m sure will be completely crossed off my TBR before the end of the year, which I’m proud of. It means I’ve made smart choices about what I will actually be reading soon. This is what I was aiming for all year, but I’ve only accomplished it maybe twice, so I expect bigger book hauls on the horizon. I already have a Book Outlet order planned for August, so we’ll see how far off my goal of 5 I’ll be next month.

What new books are you looking forward to reading? Have you read any of these?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Clockwork Princess

I’m on a mission to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year, and after months of feeling like I was stuck in the middle, I have reached an end–not the end, because I still have two collections of short stories and three full novels to go, but I have officially reached the end of the Infernal Devices trilogy. Although I had read the first two books of this series previously, this was my first time through book three, Clockwork Princess. This will be a spoiler-free review, but you should read Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince before continuing below.

clockworkprincessAbout the book: Mortmain’s evil plans are coming to fruition–the automatons are now nearly unstoppable and countless in number. All he’s missing is Tessa, the final piece toward completing his scheme, and he won’t be missing her for long. Charlotte and the other residents of the London Institute are preparing to end things once and for all–if they can manage it, with only nine fighters. More likely, they’ll fight to the death and make no more than a dent in Mortmain’s army. Defeat would mean disaster for all shadowhunters, but the Consul is looking for any excuse to remove Charlotte from power at exactly the wrong time–no one else will help her now. With Jem and Tessa and Will all tangled up in conflicting love and honorable intentions, there are threats of broken hearts on the horizon, as well as the potential end of all Shadowhunters.

” ‘There must always be a first,’ said Jem. ‘It is not easy to be first, and it is not always rewarding, but it is important.’ “

I would easily say this is the best book of the three. The action starts right away, but without the momentary confusion of coming into the middle of a scene. From the beginning there’s a wider range and more equal distribution of character perspectives presented than we’ve seen in the earlier Infernal Devices books–Will, Tessa, and Jem are still our main characters, but the reader also sees secondary points of view early and often throughout the book. Sophie, Charlotte, Cecily, the Lightwoods…

“We see our better selves in the eyes of those who love us.”

First of all, there’s a plot hole here. In this volume, the reader finally learns about Mortmain’s “creation” of Tessa, and what he’s planned for her. But even if he played a role in her existence, how does that explain his knowledge of her unique shape-shifting talent? This is a question for anyone who’s already read this book–if Tessa’s the first of her kind, how could anyone (Mortmain included) have known what specific power she would display, even before Tessa knew?

But back to the review. My only real complaint about Clockwork Princess, and to a lesser extent, the other books in this trilogy, is its length. I do not mind reading long books, but I think most of the issues I had with Clockwork Princess could have been resolved on their own if Clare had been restricted to a shorter page/word count. First we have Jessamine, a largely pointless character. This trilogy failed to make me sympathetic to her case, and her reappearance in this volume provides only a reiteration of information. She does very little to further the plot throughout the trilogy. Secondly, we have annoying repetitions, which I mention in more detail in my review of Clockwork Prince, but which also appear in this book. The reader follows multiple perspectives, which I enjoy, except for the parts where the characters discover the same things at different times and the reader is forced to read a repeat of the same information. I wish Clare would have found a way around that. I also wish some of the Jem/Will/Tessa angst had been left to the reader’s imagination. Because thirdly, we have nonstop angst. It was clear from book one that they all love each other, and the looks and gestures between them would’ve been enough to convey the difficulty of that situation without each character describing their love and pain in every chapter. Will’s curse from book one and Jem’s and Tessa’s engagement from book two (and something else I won’t describe from book three) are the only real changes between the three of them, and yet we are given hundreds of pages of reasoning as to why each of them shouldn’t be in love with the other but is anyway.

That’s a hard point to criticize though, because the overly drawn-out love triangle angst is basically the purpose of the book. The mystery with Mortmain could have fit inside one book if all the relationship drama were removed from the trilogy; after the first book, he’s barely present. We don’t see him at all in Clockwork Prince, and in this book he makes one big play for total control of the Shadowhunter world, which is significant, but hardly takes up 568 pages. I’m not sure it even takes more than 100. Clearly the tension between Jem and Will and Tessa is the majority of the book. And just below that is the romantic tension between the secondary characters…

” ‘Life is a book, and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read. I would read them together with you, as many as I can, before I die–‘ “

Not all of Cassandra Clare’s books are that way. There’s always angst, but this trilogy in particular is full of the complications of love. Others are much more plotty. Clare writes some great plot twists, but very few of them can be found in Clockwork Princess. What can be found, though, is a sort of elegant exploration of love and all its complications. And through that, the largest weakness of this book–its overstated romantic tension–also becomes its main strength.

“Life was an uncertain thing, and there were some moments one wished to remember, to imprint upon one’s mind that the memory might be taken out later, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book, and admired and recollected anew.”

And if you’re only reading for the love story, you’ll appreciate this ending. The last 80-100 pages of this book lay plot entirely aside to explore how things turn out for our main characters after everything settles down.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Personally, I could have done with a little less angst. But the story between all the heartache was well done, and even the heartache had its moments. I admit I was wary of this trilogy when I read Clockwork Angel this year–I didn’t like it as much as I’d remembered, and I was afraid the rest of the series would feel the same; but the three books steadily improved, and I think the rocky start was worth reading just for this third volume. I believe there’s a spin-off series (also by Cassandra Clare) starting publication in 2018, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I’ll also be continuing onward through the rest of the Shadowhunter works, including a read of City of Heavenly Fire in August, which will be another satisfying end, I hope.

Coming up next: I’m presently reading my classic of the month, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Classics reviews only appear in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll find my thoughts on Treasure Island there, and my next full review will feature Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game. Ware’s book features a group of boarding school friends who’ve grown up and are dealing with an unexpected death, and the uncovering of lies they’d vowed not to tell each other.

Do you like starting a great series, or finishing it? There’s such a big difference between the anticipation of a great first book and the satisfaction of concluding the last one. While I liked the conclusion better in this trilogy, I think generally I’m a fan of first books–they excite me. Which do you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

August TBR

I’m in one of those reading moods where I just want to read everything all at once and the certain knowledge that I won’t have time to read every book before I die is extremely depressing. It’s made me a little more impulsive than usual with what I’m picking up to read next. In July, I set my TBR much larger than I could manage, so that I would have plenty of choice in what to read next. The problem with that tactic is that when I started working on my August TBR my first instinct was to add all the extra books I hadn’t gotten to from July because I felt like I’d failed for neglecting them. But I don’t want my TBRs to make me feel like I’m failing, so I’m trying a new tactic. This month, I’m only listing the bare minimum in my TBR, the books I know I will absolutely be getting around to–the next books in series I’m reading, the reading challenge fulfillers, etc. When I finish those, I’ll decide what to read next as I go. Here’s what I know for sure I will be reading in August–>

The book you voted for in my latest Choose My Next Read post:

  1. The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien. The category was “first in a YA series,” but I’m also counting it as August’s Classic of the Month. (My classic of the month was supposed to be Dumas’ vengeful The Count of Monte Cristo, which I still really want to read but I have other long books in mind for August so I’m going to put that one on hold for now.) This one’s about a hobbit going on an adventure in search of treasure, and there’s an elf and a dragon, I think, and that’s all I know. But I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and I can cross two reading goals off my list with this one book so I’m going to pick it up in August.

A reading challenge book:

  1. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I love a good murder mystery, and this one also fulfills a slot in my 2017 reading challenge (book based on a true story). Also, there’s a movie coming out based on this book in November and I’ve never seen an Agatha Christie-based movie but I want to. It follows a murder case that’s taken place on a train, where everyone is a suspect and anyone could be the next victim. I don’t actually have a copy of this one in my hand yet but it will arrive in a few days and it’ll probably be a fairly quick read.

A library book:

  1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman. I know this is an adult fantasy in which a boy is chasing a fallen star for the girl he loves, and I don’t know much else other than Neil Gaiman wrote it. I’ve been wanting to read more of his books, and this is the one I found at my library. It looks short and fun, and reading A Game of Thrones in July put me in the mood for more fantasy so I’m going to give this one a try.

Series I plan to continue immediately:

  1. The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This one was on my July TBR and I didn’t find time for it, but I do really want to continue this series (first book: The Queen of the Tearling). I’ve heard that this second book is the best, and I can’t wait to see what will happen when Kelsea, new queen of the Tearling, will clash with the powerful Red Queen of the neighboring land. Also, Mace is pretty cool. I’m excited to see what will happen next for this crew, especially now that I’ve ordered book three to wrap up the trilogy.
  2. City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare. I’ve been reading Clare’s Shadowhunter books in publication order this year, and I’ve finally reached the end of her biggest series. This is the 6th book in the Mortal Instruments series, and after I’m through with this one I’ll be moving on to the short story collections, and then to the most recent releases in the Dark Artifices trilogy. I’m so excited for all of that, but first I have to find out how this saga will end for Clary and Jace and the rest of their friends. Will they finally outsmart Sebastian and fix the clave?
  3. A Clash of Kinds by George R. R. Martin. Last month I finally picked up A Game of Thrones again, and loved it just as much as the first time. But now I’m planning to continue, and the length of this one is part of the reason I changed my classic of the month to a shorter book, because right now this is a higher priority for me. I’m finally going to read all of the books in this massive series, and watch all of the episodes. I’m certain I’ll get to this one really soon even though I know it’ll take considerable time to work through. I can’t wait to see what happens next for all of my favorite (and most-loathed) characters.

A Book of the Month Club selection:

  1. Final Girls by Riley Sager. This was my July selection from BOTM, a slasher thriller that looks more suited for October than summer, but I’ve seen some great reviews and I’m a thriller fan year-round. I did read a few pages already, and thrillers also go fast so I’ll probably wrap this one up at the start of the month. It’s about three girls who’ve been the “lucky” survivors of murder sprees, who are now being pushed together and targeted by a new killer because they escaped the first time.

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And that’s my list. It’s 7 books, and I’m fairly confident I’ll read more than that, but these are my top priorities at the moment. I needed a non-overwhelming TBR this month. I want to be able to cross everything off the list instead of leaving a handful of unread books at the end of the month. (Although I’ve also got library holds on Midnight at the Electric, Exit West, and Because You Love to Hate Me, plus I’ll have a new BOTM book coming, and I’m still expecting The Lying Game in the mail, so no matter how many books I put on my official list for the month, clearly they keep piling up.) Wish me luck.

What are you reading in August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Game of Thrones

I’ve embarked on a fantastical journey. This is not the first time I’ve read the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, nor, I hope, will it be the last, because there are many things to love about it. But it’s been four years since my first trek through A Game of Thrones, and since I intend to continue onward this time, I figured I was due to revisit book one.

About the book: The Hand of the King gameofthronesis dead. Some might say he was murdered. Either way, Winterfell’s Lord Eddard Stark sets things in motion when he accepts the position offered by his friend, the king. While he’s away at King’s Landing, the rest of his family must step up to leadership roles on behalf of the north and Winterfell, but other houses in the Seven Kingdoms want to use the Stark family’s new vulnerability to gain more power for themselves. Some wish to be the Hand of the King–and some, with secrets and schemes laid years ago, want to be king (or queen). The slippery and ambitious Lannisters, loathed by many, seem to have the closest claim to the throne if only they can get the king out of the way. But while allegiances shift and families grapple for the throne, there’s new trouble beyond the Wall–the white walkers are closer than ever before, killing men and raising wights from the dead. If ever there was a time the Seven Kingdoms needed to band together, the growing threat past the Wall is proof that this is it. And yet all the major houses of the Seven Kingdoms are too busy at war over the Iron Throne…

“Every noble house had its words. Family mottoes, touchstones, prayers of sorts, they boasted of honor and glory, promised loyalty and truth, swore faith and courage. All but the Starks. Winter is coming, said the Stark words.”

A Game of Thrones is the first in a seven book series (five published so far, with no news on which decade the sixth book might eventually appear in). It’s high fantasy, but there’s not a lot of magic. There are old stories of the magic that used to be in the lands, but very few characters brush anywhere close to it in this first novel. There are hints of the supernatural. Some might argue there’s a bit of romance. But first and foremost, this is a political series, an exploration of characters and their alliances and the powers they wield or lose.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

About the writing: you don’t read A Game of Thrones for the writing. You just don’t. George R. R. Martin’s writing style is competent. It’s wise in its choice of detail and in the seamless flow of present action and backstory. It includes some great lines. But the narration is primarily matter-of-fact, concerned with the inclusion of every necessary detail in its proper place rather than beauty of metaphor. There are some clunky sentences, moments when the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last name mentioned and other little issues that are not indecipherable but do cause occasional confusion. But it’s okay, because you don’t read A Game of Thrones for its pretty sentences.

You read it for the characters.

“Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”

The best part of A Game of Thrones is that it’s not a tale full of “good guys” vs. “bad guys.” Who even are the good guys? There’s not even a main character. Everyone in A Game of Thrones is (arguably) as important as everyone else, be they man, woman, or child. Readers can choose a different favorite for the throne every hundred pages. Even just on my second time through the same first novel, I have different favorites than I did the first time, though my most-hated characters haven’t changed. In this first novel, the reader follows nine POVs, all in the third person. The chapters are titled only with their lead character’s name. But it’s all connected. The major players appear in each other’s chapters, or their relatives do, or their friends, or their secrets. Martin is a master of plucking individual story lines out of the whole, making each of them distinct and compelling without losing sight of the bigger picture and its interconnectedness.

“I swear to you, I was never so alive as when I was winning this throne, or so dead as now that I’ve won it.”

This was an interesting book to reread. There’s a bit of mystery, some questions that are answered within this first volume and some left for future novels. That made it fascinating to read back through, with some idea of what was coming ahead but gaps still left to motivate reading on. There’s so much detail packed into this one shortest novel of the series that I felt the reread was completely worthwhile, even though I did recall the big reveals that took place. I was able to look more closely at the little hidden truths that are folded into the writing, but I don’t know enough yet to see through everyone’s secrets.

“The heart lies and the head plays tricks with us, but the eyes see true. Look with your eyes. Hear with your ears. Taste with your mouth. Smell with your nose. Feel with your skin. Then comes the thinking, afterward, and in that way knowing the truth.”

I don’t want to talk too much more about plot, but I will say it’s intense. You need to have a strong stomach to read through some of the details in this book. There’s rape. Murder. Battle scenes. Direwolves. Humans reanimated after death. Harsh punishments and cruelty. Incest. Betrayal. A child pushed off a tower. And you never know who’s going to live or die. I learned my first time through this book not to get too attached to any one character, because Martin likes to build sympathy for them just to lead them to their deaths. If this was a spoiler review, I’d talk about some of my theories, but it’s not, so I’ll just say (for anyone who’s read this already or watched the first season) that Tyrion is my favorite Lannister, Arya is my favorite Stark, and Daenerys is currently my favorite character. I thought Jon’s chapters were most fun to read, and Catelyn’s the least. But no matter who you favor, A Game of Thrones is utterly captivating and 100% worth the time it takes to read an 800-page book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Same as last time. I still find politics a little exhausting to read about so extensively, so I’m aiming to take about a week’s break before starting the next book. But I will watch season one of the TV series in that time. My plan is to read the five books published so far, and then watch the corresponding episodes for each book as I complete them. I suppose when I reach the end of the fifth book I’ll carry on with the episodes and just read the remaining two novels when they’re eventually published. (Please, George R. R. Martin, publish those last two books.) Waiting for the series to be finished is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to dedicate myself to reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is not really the same as Martin’s books at all, but I think there’ll be some overlap between the two fan bases. Outlander is a sci-fi/romance/historical fiction/fantasy mishmash about a time-traveling woman who falls through a circle of standing stones in Scotland and stands up in the same circle two hundred years in the past. And it has a phenomenal TV series that’s about to get really good in September, so now’s the time to read it.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare, the final book in the Infernal Devices trilogy. Because as fun as it is to start a new series with 1000+ page books, it’s also a relief to finish what I’ve already started. Clockwork Princess is a Shadowhunter novel set in Victorian London, featuring an evil mastermind with an army of mechanical monsters and a tragic love triangle.

Are you a series reader? Which one’s your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: You can now read my complete review of the next book in this series, A Clash of Kings!

Choose My Next Read: Round 3

Here’s your chance to vote for a book you’d like to see me review in August! I’ve been particularly enjoying having some assistance in deciding what to read next from my ever-growing TBR, and I love seeing your feedback on which books I should read and which reviews you’re most interested in. So without further ado, please choose my next read!

The category: first in a YA series

The rules: choose one title from the list I’ve compiled below of unread books from my TBR that fit this category, and vote for it in the comments. The book with the most votes (or randomly selected winner between tied titles) will appear on my August TBR, to be read and reviewed within the month.

The books:

  1. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. The 18 year-old ruler of Khorasan takes a wife every night–only to have her killed in the morning. Shahrzad volunteers for one such marriage with the intent of revenge for a friend who died under the same circumstances. She tells stories to keep herself alive, and in the process learns the secrets of the tortured ruler who killed her friend.
  2. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. In 2575, there is an ongoing war over possession of a small, icy planet. Kady and Ezra, in the middle of a bad break-up, are forced together in the evacuation and additionally through a plague outbreak. On top of those challenges, the artificial intelligence of the ship seems to be working against their race to figure out what, exactly, is going on in space.
  3. The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. With few survivors left on Earth, those who remain have learned not to trust anyone. Beings who look human but are decidedly not also roam the planet, so when Cassie meets someone new who might be able to help her she must first determine whether he is who he appears or presents a new danger altogether.
  4. The Kiss of Deception by Mary E Pearson. Princess Lia is out to break tradition–the tradition of arranged marriage for royalty based on best political gain. She runs away on the morning of her own wedding to settle in a distant common village, unaware that two men are pursuing her–an assassin, and the prince who would have been her husband.
  5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins ventures on a quest for treasure guarded by a dragon. He stands to gain more than gold–through each part of his quest he faces a new challenge that will also teach him in turn to use the complete range of his personal skills and encourage him to learn about his own nature. (I’m counting this as first in a series because I intend to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy afterward, and would be using this one to get me started.)

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A disclaimer: I’m agreeing only to read the first book of any of these series in August. I do own the next books in each of these sets, and I do intend to continue at least through a second book in all of them, but when I get around to a second book in a series depends on my interest level in the first and what else I’ve already planned for upcoming months. But I will absolutely read at least one of these books in August.

Please lend a hand. Drop a name. Leave a vote in the comments, because there are too many books on my TBR that I should’ve already read and I don’t even know where to start. Which of these books would you like to see me review next?

The deadline: Wednesday, July 26, 10 pm US Central Time.

May the best book win!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Between Shades of Gray

I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and was looking forward to picking up her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. This book, a YA historical fiction tale, was the winner of July’s Choose My Next Read vote, so thank you to everyone who participated and stay tuned for August’s vote later this week!

betweenshadesofgrayAbout the book: Lina is at home in Lithuania with her mother and small brother when the family is forcibly deported by Soviets. Lina’s father is already missing, so when the rest of the family arrives at the train station amidst a crowd of deportees, she goes looking for him. The men are not going to the same place as the women and children and infirm, so Lina must use her artistic drawings and trust the passing hands of strangers to convey messages to her absent father concerning the family’s whereabouts. Conditions in the train car are awful, but they’re nothing compared to the inhumane treatment Lina and her family find in the labor camps. Eventually they land in Siberia, where they must build their own winter-proof huts out of scraps while the Soviet officers enjoy warmth and fresh food from their bakery. Lina and her family fight for survival for themselves and the other members of their group, knowing that their chances are better if they can only make it through the first sunless Siberian winter.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen…but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”

About the layout: Between Shades of Gray is told in the first person, from Lina’s perspective. The chapters are short and easily readable, despite occasionally gruesome subject matter. There are also sections within the chapters that reflect Lina’s memories prior to her deportation.

The memories felt unnecessary to me. They don’t further the plot, and the characterization they show could be gained from Lina’s present story line, except maybe in the case of Lina’s father’s past “crimes.” Yet even those I felt could be described from the present, and nothing would be lost. Some may argue that it’s touching to compare Lina’s life before and after the war, but it felt so… expected. Of course Lina had a beautiful, innocent life with innocent troubles before the war. She was a young girl with hopes and dreams–and I would have felt the same about her past without seeing those memories. I kept looking for something in this book to surprise me, but the memories were not that something.

“It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”

Between Shades of Gray is certainly emotional, but the emotion also feels obvious. Of course there were horrors against humanity in WWII. Of course people experienced unspeakable atrocities, and of course when we’re given a chance to look at their lives individually it’s all tragic. That aspect of the book did not surprise me at all, either. I was expecting sad deaths and unfair living conditions, so their appearance was not shocking, and I was still looking for something surprising to drive the story beyond the expected.

This is a story in which things happen to the characters more often than the characters are in control of their own actions. Lina does what she’s told. She doesn’t like it, but she wants to survive. Occasionally she draws to help create a record and to spread news to her father of her whereabouts, but those moments are quick and sparse and don’t give the story much forward motion. Sometimes Lina defies orders by stealing or sneaking away from where she’s supposed to be, but again, they’re small moments that contribute to small episodes of action and add little to the main narrative. Perhaps one could argue that the main plot thread involves Lina’s family trying to find and reunite with Lina’s father, but other than asking for news from strangers and sending out clues of their lives through more strangers, there’s nothing there to go on. Thus, the book lacks plot, motivation, and character action, and without those things there’s less tension except in small, episodic increments.

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”

One thing Sepetys does particularly well is to humanize the “bad guys.” The bald man in Lina’s group who is obsessed with death annoys and frightens everyone, but Sepetys will warm hearts to him in the end. The German soldier who grates on Lina’s nerves also has a story that blurs the line between villain and victim. The rude woman Lina’s family lives with at their first labor camp has a surprise in store when it comes time to say goodbye. The good guys hide their sacrifices and the bad guys are better than meets the eye. Lina’s mother is especially interesting. It would’ve been interesting to see some of this book through her perspective, behind the brave face she puts on for her children. Somehow she knows who to be kind to, how to stretch her resources, and how to put the difficulties of a situation aside.

This is a suitable book for young YA readers, as the horrors of war are related as morals rather than gory scenes.

“There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I gave them the same rating, I think if it came to a choice I would say I preferred Salt to the Sea over this novel. There are some similarities, but the switching between character perspectives in Salt to the Sea and the climax of that story involving the naval disaster gave that book more momentum. I did feel that Between Shades of Gray was an emotional and worthwhile read, and I know Sepetys has a lesser-known novel that I may be interested in reading in the future, but overall I think I’m learning that YA historical fiction is not my favorite thing. It’s a little too transparent for my taste.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a great follow-up. I would recommend reading Salt to the Sea second, because there are some related characters with a small continuing plot thread that would be easier to pick up in publication order. This novel also emphasizes Sepetys’ skill at proving no one is who they seem; every character has a private story that makes them so much more than their role in WWII.
  2. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another obvious but worthwhile suggestion for Sepetys fans. The Book Thief is also YA historical fiction focused on WWII, but takes place in Germany, focusing on a poor family who must pretend to believe what they don’t in order to survive Hitler’s changes in the country.

What’s next: I’m currently rereading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and I will definitely have a review up for that within the month, but it is kind of long and a reread so I may pick up another undetermined book from my July TBR to read at the same time, in which case there would be another review before that one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give has been picking up steam before it even released to the public, and now, a couple months past its publication date, it still hasn’t slowed down. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both timely and well-written–if you read (and even if you normally don’t) this is a book worth picking up.

thehateugiveAbout the book: Khalil is driving Starr home from a Garden Heights party when they are pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. The cop thinks they’re acting suspiciously, and one unannounced move wins Khalil three shots to the back. This is the second time Starr has witnessed the death of a best friend. She’s caught in the middle between loyalties to her family and neighborhood and the reputation she’s built for herself at a predominantly white school. Speaking out for Khalil and fighting for justice is dangerous for her in both worlds, but as her home life and school life collide she has to decide what she’s willing to fight for, and which people in her life are really on her side.

” ‘These cases always interesting,’ King says. ‘The dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed.’ “

Right at the start, I want to talk about how hard it’s been to find a good direction for this review. Generally when I’m writing reviews I aim to stick to the story itself, and not go into tangents about the current state of the world. But this is a book that’s meant to raise awareness and start conversations, and that intent is what I want to talk about.

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

There are a lot of things to love about The Hate U Give, and readers have been talking about all those good things for months. Like everyone else, I appreciated the writing style, the plot, and its attempt to raise awareness of continuing racism in America, because the book does all those things indisputably well. I do think it misses an important opportunity, though.

I don’t disagree with the argument that there is still racism in the US. It’s not something that I see firsthand every day, but I have no difficulty believing that it’s out there, not just in big ways like unfair deaths but in a thousand small words and gestures. I can get behind that argument. I can get behind the need to stop racism. What I can’t get behind is substituting one instance of racism with another one. There are generalizations about white people in this book. Just a small handful of instances, and nothing too cruel beyond the fact that they’re generalizations, but I was surprised to find them here at all. It’s odd to see commentary like that coming from Starr, who’s so aware of offenses going the other way and who’s interested in justice, not revenge. I felt that these moments were maybe meant to make white readers a little uncomfortable, to flip the tables and show them what the characters in this story are dealing with, and for that reason I didn’t completely mind that those instances were in the book even though generally I feel that’s the wrong approach. The real reason those little instances of being lumped in a category with people who ride garbage cans down stairs and kiss dogs on the mouth bugged me was because this book could have done more to make a positive change. It has everyone’s attention–but what is it doing with it?

That’s the missed opportunity. The Hate U Give does a great job of raising awareness of injustices. It shows a case where the white man’s word means more than the black girl’s, and does it in a way that convinces the reader that this is not unusual in modern US. But what can we learn from it? What is it telling readers they can do differently to help solve continuing problems of racism? If you’re a cop, maybe it tells you to learn the whole story before you shoot. But if you’re not a cop, what can you do? If you don’t have a black girlfriend to follow through riots, what can you do? There are good characters who set good examples in this book, but very little to suggest what readers can do to follow their footsteps. I didn’t expect this to be a stop-racism-instruction-manual. But I think this book really missed a great opportunity to encourage positive change when it stopped at raising awareness.

“At the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”

But that’s not the reason I docked a star from my rating. I believe this book could’ve made even more of a statement, but the statement it does make is an effective one. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. But it’s one of those stories you have to read for the characters, because there’s not much to surprise readers in the plot. Once you know the premise, you know the most important event of the book, and anyone living in (or hearing about) modern US can make an educated guess about the end result of that main event. Everything else has to do with character, and while they’re great characters, they’re not surprising either.

“I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.”

But let me end on a good note, because I loved everything else about this book. Starr’s family is fantastic. The writing style is easy to follow, inspiring, and keeps the reader hooked from page one, no matter what they’re feeling about the subject matter. These are the sort of characters that readers wish were their real friends. It’s that perfect blend of fiction and reality that I love–the sort that blurs the line between fact and imagination, and proves literature can do important things.

” ‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I got exactly what I expected from this book. We need more of this in literature–fiction that shows what’s going on in real life; although I also hope that writers will be brave enough to offer more suggestions for change. There are important messages in this book, about voices being powerful weapons and the need to listen to the whole story, every time, and refrain from making assumptions. I would definitely read another book from this author, and you can bet I’ll be recommending this one in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, a memoir about a young woman in Mississippi whose family and friends have been dying one by one as a direct and indirect result of continuing racism. This is a powerful story of five lives lost in five years, with enough narrative to appeal to habitual fiction readers even though it’s grounded in fact.
  2. If you’re looking for more YA that raises awareness of real-life problems, Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and Robin Roe’s A List of Cages are great choices. McGinnis’ book highlights the very real effects of rape on an entire community, and Roe’s book focuses on misuse of the foster system and guardianship rights. Neither deal directly with racism, but are timely and important YA novels that I believe are also important for readers looking to learn about the modern world through fiction.

What’s next: I’m just starting Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a YA historical fiction novel about a Lithuanian girl trying to communicate with her father through her art while she’s at a Serbian work camp during WWII.

Have you read any recent releases? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant