Tag Archives: tragedy

Review: Salt to the Sea

I usually watch Titanic every April, around the time of the the famous shipwreck’s anniversary. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I find shipwrecks tragically fascinating. But this year, instead of watching Titanic, I decided to do something a little different and read about the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in Ruta Sepetys’ latest YA historical fiction novel, Salt to the Sea.

FullSizeRender (17)About the book: Joana is a Lithuanian nurse, searching for her mother, the only family she has left. Florian is a Prussian artist, running from the secret crimes that he didn’t know he was assisting. Emilia is an orphaned Polish girl with a sad past and someone who will depend on her in the future. Florian’s injuries–both real and fabricated–will require Joana’s assistance, and Emilia refuses to leave the side of the boy (Florian) who saved her from a Russian soldier, so the three stick together in an (at first) illegal evacuation group traveling to Prussia’s coast in 1945 in hopes of boarding a ship to safer land. Alfred is a self-involved German soldier tasked with helping to prepare the MV Wilhelm Gustloff for imminent departure of evacuees–including the three teens who’ve met on the road. Circumstances and personal motivations keep these four main characters’ fates connected as they each battle with secrets from their pasts and the uncertainty of what’s to come.

“Just when you think this war has taken everything you loved, you meet someone and realize that somehow you still have more to give.”

About the layout: Salt to the Sea is narrated in brief, alternating sections from our four main characters’ points of view. Usually I am drawn to short chapters and alternating perspectives, but something about the layout of this book didn’t quite work for me. The story actually takes place over a relatively short span of time, only a few days, and we see much of that time from each character’s view. The good thing about Sepetys’ alternating sections is that they never feel like backtracking. It’s a pet peeve of mine when a new character’s section goes back to the beginning of the last character’s section and tells the same thing with a different set of eyes, which is not the case with this book. But many of Sepetys’ sections had similar statements, hitting the same mysterious past incidents and giving the same sense of ominous foreshadowing as the sections before it. The reader understands early on that each character has a secret, and that each will face catastrophe before the end of the book. I don’t mind piecing together these events little by little with the narrators. What I do mind is being reminded repeatedly that there are things I don’t know at times when answers are not being provided. To put it simply, I thought there were too many hints when there could simply have been more narration. Perhaps longer sections would have helped keep the narration more grounded in the present.

On the other side of that argument, though, I would like to acknowledge that I did appreciate the background information on what had already happened and was currently happening with the war. Usually I don’t like being informed so blatantly of details that the characters know without thinking–it feels inauthentic for them to explain things they already know, like they’re talking down to the reader. (Consider a story about your own life taking place right now, but being read 70 years in the future. While those readers might appreciate a bit of background about what type of cell phone you’re using and how it works, it’s not something your character would otherwise need to describe in detail because it’s a ubiquitous part of life in 2017.) But here, the characters talk or think about real historical events and concerns in ways that also reveal something about themselves or their experiences, rather than simply stating facts in a way that would alienates the reader from the story. Salt to the Sea is firmly a fictional narrative, and never feels like a dry history book of logistics and statistics.

About the characters: Each of the four characters is given equal importance in this book, due to the fact that they each have their own sad stories to reveal and also because each of their present stories revolves around the other characters, keeping everyone in play. Although Alfred is not exactly part of the group, he is perhaps the most intriguing character. He’s a Hitler supporter entirely, often dropping comments that would be easy to hate him for if he wasn’t also so tragic and funny. He’s been sheltered and misguided, led astray by privilege and protective parents, and is pitiable rather than someone to loathe because he doesn’t understand the wrongness of his thoughts and actions. His compelling creepiness more than makes up for the part of the book in which he has no contact with the other characters.

Good or evil, hopeful or hopeless, Sepetys links the reader to each character’s storyline just in time for death and destruction to hit. The catastrophe on the over-crowded ship hits especially hard because the reader is invested in the lives on board. And that is precisely what gives the book its powerful impact. It’s at this point that the reader remembers this is a real event being fictionalized, there were thousands of real lives, each with their own stories like Florian, Joana, Emilia, and Alfred have theirs, and all in peril. The reader is compelled onward not only for the sake of the four main characters, but to learn what became of this little-known WWII tragedy.

“How do you defend yourself against the prolonged, insufferable agony of knowing you will surrender to the sea?”


About the ending: this is a book that had to hit just the right number of main character fatalities. If everyone died, the story wouldn’t land quite right. If everyone lived, the story would seem completely unrealistic and as though it were making light of what it was acknowledging as a truly awful disaster. I am pleased to announce that Sepetys found the perfect balance of loss and hope with the ending of this book, not only with the outcome on the sea, but what would happen later regarding these characters. I found the last chapter particularly satisfying.

“How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or sky.” 

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Tales of shipwreck are, for some reason, particularly appealing to me. I like to grieve them. And yet… it took a long time for this book to feel like it was really pulling me forward into the sinking. Maybe it’s something about YA historical fiction, but for some reason I never have quite as strong a reaction to it as I hope going in. Still, I liked this book enough to add Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray to my list, as well.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a great YA historical fiction about WWII. This one follows a young girl in Germany who wants to be able to read, and her troubled but mostly kind caretakers; the story is narrated by Death, which is what sold me on this one.
  2. Tatiana de Rosney’s Sarah’s Key is an emotional tale of two siblings in WWII and what became of them. This one’s written for adults but features the story of children when the war reached France, giving it the dual perspectives of youth in the war and wiser reflection in the aftermath.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Lauren Graham’s Talking as Fast as I Can, a Gilmore Girls and acting career memoir. I’ve heard the audiobook is good, but I’m glad I read a physical copy. Stay tuned to find out why, and whether this one’s worth the read no matter the medium.


The Literary Elephant


Review: Faithful

I’d heard of this book’s release, and I’d certainly heard of Alice Hoffman, but Faithful was low on my radar until I saw it on my library’s new arrivals shelf and got a closer look. I was absolutely drawn in by the beautiful cover, and the description sounded like just the sort of sorrowful tale I was in the mood for during the snowy months, so I picked it up on impulse. It was not a mistake.

faithful2About the book: Shelby and her best friend were driving on a snowy night in a Long Island town when the car hit ice and slid off the road. Shelby is home again the very next day, but Helene, her friend, would never never wake from her comatose state. People believe she gained extraordinary healing powers, but Shelby can’t bring herself to visit and find out–believing her guilt and sorrow to be her penance for walking away from the accident while Helene lies ruined, Shelby doesn’t want to be healed. At first, she can barely stand to leave her parents’ basement, except to wander the town alone at night. Ben supplies her with pot at first, and then more than she can ever repay, but Shelby isn’t ready to move on. She sees misery every day, everywhere she goes, and tries to lessen that misery to start paying back her debt of wrongdoing. Her best friends are the dogs she rescues from abuse and neglect, and they keep her going even when she doesn’t want to move. There’s only one person who can save Shelby from herself, but she’s not sure he/she even exists. Shelby is receiving postcards from some anonymous source that she thinks may somehow be Helene, or her guardian angel. Someone pulled her out of the car that night before her mother and the ambulance arrived, but Shelby doesn’t remember much, and she doesn’t trust her flashes of recollection. She wishes the angel had helped Helene instead, but the angel knows no mistake was made.

“You rescue something and you’re responsible for it. But maybe that’s what love is. Maybe it’s like a hit-and-run accident; it smashes you before you can think. You do it no matter the cost and you keep on running.”

This book is beautifully dark. The main character starts the book with some pretty serious depression, and it’s the kind of narration that makes your soul weep but at the same time there’s this little voice in the back of your mind that says, “yes, I’ve thought that,” or “I would do the same thing.” In the horrifying scenario of having been involved in the demise of her best friend, Shelby succeeds in showing the narrator just how empty and meaningless life can become after such a tragedy. It’s not the sort of coping that anyone who hasn’t driven their best friend off the road and into a permanent coma can understand, and yet the reader is given this eerily close look at the devastation Shelby faces. We think we can sympathize. But Shelby shows us how much we just don’t know.

“She’s afraid of ruining someone else’s life. She wonders if there’s some sort of poisonous antibody in her blood that hurts anyone she’s close to.”

My favorite thing about this book is that although the emotions run heavy and the narrator is dark and twisted, the pacing of events in Faithful keep the story from becoming a constant sob fest. Shelby is deeply wounded and confused, but she’s out rescuing pets and errant teens and tackling one challenge at a time instead of curling up in a ball and waiting to die. Her thoughts are sticky and sad, but she keeps facing day-to-day life as it’s thrown at her, doing the best she can with what she has. It’s not much, but it keeps the story moving.

“Feelings are best left concealed. They can bite you if you’re not careful. They can eat you alive.”

Another perk: this is a book for animal lovers. Shelby adds more dog friends to her life than people, and the narration gives them each distinct “petsonalities” that are fun to watch throughout the book. And if you’re not a dog person, that’s okay too, because there’s a character who’ll agree with you, saying:

“I’m sticking with books. They never let you down and they don’t judge you.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. We all have dark thoughts sometimes. Maybe you didn’t send your best friend into a coma in a horrible accident at seventeen, but sometimes the world gets you down anyway. Misery loves company, they say, and it truly did feel a bit cathartic to share some depressing thoughts with someone who really understood them as well as Shelby. I don’t usually reach for particularly sad stories, but that’s the thing–this is the aftermath of the sad story. Shelby is still horribly sad, but it’s a story about finding hope and life again where it was once dead. The messages, ultimately, are positive and encouraging for anyone who feels down about their lot in life. Faithful is definitely more sad than happy, but it ends with the assertion that all is never lost.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Cline’s The Girls is another great novel about ups and downs and tragedy. Technically, this one features a fictional Manson-like cult in the late 1960’s, but more deeply, it’s about what it means to be a girl, to be human, and/or to have a difficult past. This book shows how easily one can be swept up in trouble and how to cope with the aftermath. It’s a powerful and emotional read about finding oneself.
  2. Lucky You by Erika Carter is a 2017 release about three girls in their early twenties who escape to a run-down house in the Ozarks to escape their troubles in life but realize they can find problems off the grid, too. This is a coming-of-age story that’s less sad but no less thought-provoking that Faithful; the characters are ridiculous and often wrong, but they’re searching for their place in the world just like anyone else. They merely take an odd path to their destinations. This is a great read for anyone who feels a little lost–because at least you’re not that lost.

P. S. Does anyone have any other Alice Hoffman recommendations for me? I may be interested in reading more works by this author but I don’t know where to start.

Coming up next: my final January read was Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, a YA stand-alone that features three high school seniors whose paths intersect as their hometown struggles with several instances of rape. Each main character is affected in a different way, but the only way to stop abusers is to stand together and finally tell the truth. It’s a powerful new YA book that every teen should read. Check back early next week for more info.


The Literary Elephant

Review: We Were Liars

Hey summer readers, grab some shades and a sunny chair, because this book is all about summer, and you should make it part of yours. If you like YA books with private islands and unreliable narrators, this one’s for you.


I remember being terrified that I would grow up but never grow out of YA books. I don’t know why, exactly, but my teenage self thought that perusing the YA shelves as an adult was an awful prospect. It turned out not to matter much, because the adult fiction section is also pretty great and I transitioned out of YA pretty naturally. I still have a lot of respect for the genre, though, so when a YA book really stands out, I do still venture back to those shelves to keep from missing something great. That’s what We Were Liars was for me–I heard so many good things about it that I had to check it out for myself, and I am so glad that I did.

About the book: Cady is one of four kids the same age who spend their summers with the Sinclair family on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Cady’s grandparents are rich–wealthy enough to support their three struggling daughters through their divorces and cover the expenses of bringing all three generations of the family to the four personalized houses on the island for the entire summer. Time is running out, though, to settle the elder Sinclairs’ estate, and the disputes about money are driving them all apart. The parents use their children as leverage to get the money they want while their trust funds start to run dry–Cady is the oldest grandchild, but she’s a girl. Johnny’s only three weeks younger, and he’ll carry on the Sinclair name, but he’s not very smart. Mirren is book smart, but she’s afraid to take risks. And then there’s Gat, Johnny’s almost stepbrother, who is both smart and savvy, ambitious and hard-working, but he wasn’t born a Sinclair at all, and will never quite fit in. There are the littles, of course, the young siblings, but it’ll be one of the eldest to inherit. From the outside, the family’s perfect, but the four Liars can see the cracks, and they spend summer fifteen trying to wedge the pieces apart to see if the family and their precious summers can last. Cady is in love with Gat, but even more in love with the idea of removing the powerful grip that the family money holds in all of their lives. Something happens at the end of summer fifteen to change everything, but Cady can’t remember what. She was sent away for summer sixteen, and now, in summer seventeen, is trying to piece it all back together, to heal, and be one of the Liars again before it all changes forever.

“My third week on-island is ticking by and a migraine takes me out for two days. Or maybe three. I can’t even tell. The pills in my bottle are getting low, though I filled my prescription before we left home. I wonder if Mummy is taking them. Maybe she has always been taking them. Or maybe the twins have been coming in my room again, lifting things they don’t need. Maybe they’re users. Or maybe I am taking more than I know. Popping extra in a haze of pain. Forgetting my last dose.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of this story for me is the use of an unreliable narrator. The excerpt above is just one reason not to trust her–she’s on heavy medication and she’s not entirely sure how much she’s taking or how it’s affecting her. She also opens the story by admitting that her family puts on a false show of perfection for the public, and even amongst her family members she and her friends are referred to as the Liars, a name they don’t refute. The central focus of this book is Cady’s attempt to uncover a truth so terrible she’s hiding it from herself, and the only way to piece it together is to sort through years of lies. It’s a play on reality that keeps the reader constantly wondering who to trust and what to believe. There are additional layers of fiction woven in by Cady’s inclusion of fairy tales that both fantasize her family and shed new light on their personalities. It’s easy to imagine the entire story as one emassed fairy tale that Cady creates for the fun of it–except some truths can’t be denied, even in the ficitons she spins.

Another thing I loved about this book was the style of the prose. The whole book is quick and easy to read, sharply lyrical, verging toward poetry at points. Lockhart calls attention to certain events and emotions with vivid imagery as Cady exaggerates the world and her reactions to it:

“My father put a last suitcase into the backseat of the Mercedes (he was leaving Mummy with only the Saab), and started the engine. / Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound, / then from my eyes, / my ears, / my mouth. / It tasted like salt and failure.  The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps to the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout. / Mummy snapped. She said to get hold of myself.”

This is a great example of Cady fusing her feelings into her version of reality, almost so seamlessly the reader is left to wonder whether she even understands that she’s lying at all. Certainly she makes no effort in her narration to distinguish between fact and exaggeration. She often describes physical death when something emotionally difficult happens to her in this book. The line breaks (indicated with a “/”) also add emphasis to the imagery and control the pacing of the narration in order to indicate emotion. Here’s another example of the poetic nature of the prose in We Were Liars:

“And maybe, / just maybe, / he’d come back one day, / and burn that / [stupid] / palace / to the ground.”

A warning: The book is essentially about a family of rich snobs that all think they know best. They don’t know the names of their staff, they’re destructive and wasteful, and money is always a top concern. Even the ones who are aware of it act entitled. Cady is a spoiled girl who seems to understand that her mother and aunts will be in trouble when their trust funds run out, but she isn’t at all concerned about what that could mean for her personally or how it might affect her life if she and her mother don’t inherit the Sinclair estate. She’s a teenager who understands that fighting over the money is driving her family apart, but she’s not accustomed to worrying about consequences. Then again, these factors open the world of possibilities that make this story possible. The lies and lyricism of the prose were enough to balance it out for me, but if you can’t cope with the rich snobbiness, the arguments over embroidered tablecloths and ivory figurines, this may not be the book for you. Cady isn’t exactly a detestable character, but her familiarity with a lifetime of wealth is something to be aware of with this book.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was a surprise favorite; I had heard that it was a great summer read about rich kids on the beach of their private island, but it was the tragedy of the story that I loved. I wanted to write more about the beautiful, tragic irony of this book in more detail, but I didn’t want to spoil the ending. I must note, though, that the incredible dark twist was my favorite part, and brought all of the characters’ actions and personalities together for me. Even though they were rich and entitled, their problems weren’t completely negligible; the Liars were worried about their family and the threat the fighting posed to time that they spent together as friends in the summer. Even though it’s told through a haze of money, We Were Liars is a story about love, loss, and responsibility; it’s about growing up, and learning that there are things you can’t change about who you are.

Further recommendations:

  1. John Green’s Looking for Alaska is another YA book about self-discovery, love and loss. It’s an emotional book about adventure and growing up, another great choice to take poolside and enjoy with some sun.
  2. For something a little heavier but still perfect for summer, experience the other end of the money spectrum with Virginia Wolff’s Make Lemonade. Two teenaged girls struggling to make lift their families out of poverty come up against the harsh realities of an unfair world and fight for a better fate.

What’s next: Told from the perspective of one small boy who’s been locked in a soundproofed room with his mother for five years, Emma Donoghue’s Room is a masterpiece about family, freedom, and time. With everything at stake, five year-old Jack must be willing to brave the outside world to save himself and his mother from the captivity to which he’s become accustomed. Stay tuned to find out more!

As you set sail on summer reading adventures, I say,

Bon Voyage!

The Literary Elephant