Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

salt-to-the-sea“Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

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

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

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.” – Goodreads

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys is a woeful and fictional depiction of the true story of the world’s most disastrous maritime tragedy known to man.

In 1945, near the end of World War II, four youth from different war-torn countries and of different backgrounds converge on a frozen path, intent on traveling to board a ship – the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff – bound for Kiel, Germany, where they are purported to be safe from Stalin and his army, who are pursuing them. What follows is the largest maritime disaster and loss of life in recorded history

Joana is a compassionate and knowledgeable nurse from Lithuania who brands herself a murderer as she grieves for her lost cousin and family. Emilia has been fleeing the Russian troops since she left Poland and is harboring a precious secret under her coat. Florian is a Prussian art restorer who is enacting his vengeance upon the Reich as he travels undercover. Alfred is an SS officer and sailor who maniacally worships Hitler and fantasizes about proving his heroism to the world at large.

Through the voices of these four young narrators, Salt to the Sea reveals to readers the calamitous tale of the Wilhelm Gustloff – which, despite the loss of over 9,000 lives when it sank at the hands of Russian torpedoes, is to this day a much overlooked tragedy in maritime history. This enormous pit of loss, horror, and despair is where Salt to the Sea is at its best. The fear and hopelessness of these characters is palpable, as is their will to survive and continue on toward salvation and a better life. It is easy to feel their grief and guilt for those they were forced to leave behind, and for those who died along the way during the long, hard trek.

It is quite clear that Sepetys was meticulous and exhaustive when it came to her research. The content of this novel meant much to her – one need only to read her touching Author’s Note at the end of the novel for proof. Unfortunately, I found that I was unable to forge an emotional connection with the novel, nor did I form any sort of attachment to one or more of the characters. The structure of the book was short and choppy, with each chapter only a few pages or less – this isn’t always a problem for me, however, with four separate narrators it cut short the time spent with each character and put me at a disadvantage when it came to forging a relationship with anyone.

Salt to the Sea is definitely a novel worth reading, if not for any other reason than this is a haunting tale that needs to be told to the masses.  The horror and tragedy of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the enormity of the impact on the people who were kicked out of their homes and forced to trek so many miles through vicious snow and low temperatures, and the fate of so many who were a part of Operation Hannibal as they attempted to escape the Eastern Front press of the Russian army are things that must not fall by the wayside of our awareness.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys – Read it today!

3 stars

Source: Lincoln City Libraries

Review: The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris

PiecesIn this richly emotional novel, Kristina McMorris evokes the depth of a mother’s bond with her child, and the power of personal histories to echo through generations…

Two years have done little to ease veterinarian Audra Hughes’s grief over her husband’s untimely death. Eager for a fresh start, Audra plans to leave Portland for a new job in Philadelphia. Her seven-year-old son, Jack, seems apprehensive about flying—but it’s just the beginning of an anxiety that grows to consume him.

As Jack’s fears continue to surface in recurring and violent nightmares, Audra hardly recognizes the introverted boy he has become. Desperate, she traces snippets of information unearthed in Jack’s dreams, leading her to Sean Malloy, a struggling US Army veteran wounded in Afghanistan. Together they unravel a mystery dating back to World War II, and uncover old family secrets that still have the strength to wound—and perhaps, at last, to heal.

Intricate and beautifully written, The Pieces We Keep illuminates those moments when life asks us to reach beyond what we know and embrace what was once unthinkable. Deftly weaving together past and present, herein lies a story that is at once poignant and thought-provoking, and as unpredictable as the human heart.” – Publisher Summary

The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris is a tale of two eras, and two families, joined together by one dark history. With detailed, in-depth research, McMorris brings to us the frightening period of World War II in both London and the U.S., while also opening our eyes to the often overlooked occurrence of Nazi spies infiltrating the United States. Most of us are under the impression that the continental U.S. remained largely untouched our enemies  of WWII; however in The Pieces We Keep, McMorris lays out the truth for us in a manner so clear that it is frightening to realize how close we came to danger without ever knowing about it.

In telling her tale, McMorris employs the nearly too-oft-used method of two narrators/two time periods plot device in a manner that is one of the best I have experienced. The flow between narrators/time periods is nearly seamless; I would be hard-pressed to find another novel in which this method has been so skillfully employed. The story itself, however, was somewhat predictable and a little bit “out there” for my tastes. Audra is a single mother whose son, Jack, is having night terrors. His therapist suggests that he may be experiencing memories from a past life. Audra’s search to resolve Jack’s issues brings them into a friendship with an U.S. Army veteran who is experiencing his own issues with memories.  Meanwhile, back in time during WWII, Vivian has left her first love, Isaak, behind in London and moved back to the U.S. where she returns to her daily life there. She falls in love with Gene and gives up on ever seeing Isaak again – until he steps out of the shadows one night, with a story to tell that stretches her imagination beyond belief. Jack becomes the common denominator between these two stories, linking them in a way that is somewhat fascinating, yet at the same time, somewhat expected and fantastical. While McMorris provides readers with a direction to follow and allows us to form our own conclusions about where we are going, it is not difficult to figure out the direction we are headed in.

I found The Pieces We Keep to be somewhat monotonous and, as mentioned previously, predictable, yet the storyline from WWII was fascinating to me and did redeem the tale quite a bit for me. The present-day storyline makes it simply too simple for us to ascertain the general direction of things, and it dampened any driving interest for me. I will say that McMorris did weave into the tale a few subtle twists that did surprise me here and there, and kept me from completely scrapping Audra’s storyline. While I still found Audra to be somewhat “blah”, I found Vivian to be highly personable and sympathetic; her character and storyline truly did both steal the show and save the novel from mediocrity.

The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris is available for purchase as of Tuesday, November 26th! Buy it, read it, love it.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kensington Books {via NetGalley}

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Review: The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress Those who carry the truth sometimes bear a terrible weight . . .
It is 1940 and half the world is living through the horror of the Second World War, but America still believes it is safe from the bloodshed.
In Franklin, a small town on Cape Cod, Iris James is the postmistress and she firmly believes that her job is to keep and deliver people’s secrets, to pass along the news of love and sorrow that letters carry. But one day she does the unthinkable: she doesn’t deliver a letter and instead slips it into her pocket.
Every night Iris and Emma Fitch, the young doctor’s wife, tune in to Frankie Bard’s radio dispatches, anguished bulletins sent from the air-raid shelters and Underground stations of London during the Blitz.
One night in a bomb shelter, Frankie meets a doctor from Cape Cod with a letter in his pocket, a letter Frankie vows to deliver.
In the last desperate days of the summer of 1941 Frankie leaves a traumatised London, rides the trains out of Germany and records the stories of refugees desperately trying to escape. The townspeople of Franklin listen and the war seems a life-time away, but Iris and Emma, unable to tear themselves away from Frankie’s voice, know better.
The Postmistress is an unforgettable tale of the secrets we must bear or bury. It is about what happens to love during wartime, when those we cherish leave. And how every story of love or war is about looking left when we should have been looking right.” –
Goodreads

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake tells the stories of three American women: Iris James, Emma Fitch, and Frankie Bard. Iris James is the relatively new postmaster in Franklin, a small town on Cape Cod. Emma Fitch has just moved to Franklin as well, as the new bride of Dr. Will Fitch. Frankie Bard is a New York native working as a radio reporter in London during the Blitz of World War II. Iris and Emma listen to her nightly on their radios. Will, Emma’s husband, winds up traveling to London to volunteer his medical services to those injured during the bombings. His path eventually crosses with Frankie’s and she finds herself bearing a message she must deliver, one way or another, to Emma Fitch all the way back in Franklin.

Meanwhile, Frankie is seeing the injustices of war largely ignored by society, particularly by America, who has yet to enter the war. She is desperate to share these images with America via her reports across the airwaves, but is told over and over by her superiors that “no one wants to hear about it”. Frankie ultimately winds up on a train tour through Berlin and France, recording the words of refugees in an attempt to make a record of the travesty of their plight. Traumatized by her experiences, Frankie flees Europe and London and returns to New York.

Back in Franklin, Iris and Emma are surprised when the town receives a visit from the famous Frankie Bard. Whatever could she be doing in their little neck of the woods? Little do they know that she has come to deliver something very special – along with devastating news. But what Frankie doesn’t know is that her visit to Franklin will instill her with hope for the future once again, and that finally the voices she recorded not so long ago will be heard by those who need to hear them the most.

I found The Postmistress by Sarah Blake to be an enjoyable read, if somewhat dry. Life in Franklin moved very slowly, and there didn’t seem to be much purpose there. Frankie Bard’s role, particularly in London and Europe, was particularly powerful, however. I think the most powerful question asked in this book was, when does one speak up? When does one take action? For if we do not do this, who will? And when it comes to injustice and malfeasance, if we do not do this, who will stop “them” if not for us? I am reminded of the quote by Martin Niemoller:

…Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

4 stars, my friend

Source: Lincoln City Libraries Digital Downloads

Review: The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

storyteller “Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all – if Sage even considers his request – is it murder, or justice?” –
Goodreads

In The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult, Sage Singer is a physically and emotionally disfigured young woman who, after three years, is still actively mourning her mother’s death. She attends a grief support group, where she meets beloved community hero, Josef Weber. Sage and Josef form a fast friendship, despite the fact that Sage has isolated herself from all others since her mother’s death and her own facial disfigurement from the same accident. Sage is so pleased with this new relationship – until Josef blows it all to hell. Kill me, he says. I was a Nazi SS Officer at Auschwitz, he says. Holy Crapballs, Sage says! To further complicate matters, Sage’s grandmother, Minka, happens to be a Holocaust survivor. Gasp!

The novel is comprised of several points of view, including Sage’s as she struggles to reconcile sweet Josef Weber with an evil Nazi, Josef’s as he tells the story of his life and crimes as a Nazi SS Officer, and Minka’s story of her path from the ghettos of Poland to the concentration camps, and finally to freedom. Minka’s story is particularly moving, detailing the growing desperation, despair, and utter desolation she grapples with throughout her experience as a Jewish captive in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Of course the book details Sage’s struggle to come to a decision whether or not to help Josef die as well as her struggle to reconcile the kind man whom she cares for with an evil enigma of the past.

While The Storyteller veers away from Picoult’s usual formula (there is no court case in this one), there is that classic Picoult twist at the end. I’m fairly talented at sniffing these things out and had made my guess about half-way through the book (and was right!) but I don’t think most people will make the same connections, so there will still be that shock at the end. As always, Picoult raises many questions within this book. Is assisting in Josef’s death an act of mercy or an act of justice? Can a person be both good and evil? And do we as individuals have the power to forgive someone for truly heinous acts against humankind?

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult is a seriously engaging novel. I’m fairly demanding of the books I read. I get bored easily, and don’t usually re-read books unless many, many years have passed. But I would totally re-read this book tomorrow if it fell into my lap. That Good. Check it out now, people. You will not regret it.

5 out of 5 stars

Who I would recommend this book to: My sister-in-law, Rebecca, who gave me my first Jodi Picoult novel (My Sister’s Keeper) in 2005.

Source: Borrowed