Review in Tweets: Captain America: Civil War

For my full review of Captain America: Civil War, please go check out my post on Avenging Force, where I write regularly about movies, television, and fandom. 

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This weekend, I saw the much-anticipated newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War. Twice.

I mean, I had to see it once to make sure it was okay for my kids, and then obviously I had to actually bring the kids. (For the record, though they both went in thinking they’d be Team Iron Man, one of them came out Team Cap.) So it was only reasonable that I see it twice.

I had, as you can imagine, a lot of thoughts. And while I put them together in a much more coherent actual review over on Avenging Force (and then delved even deeper into the little details of the movie here), I figured that over here, I’d post all my reaction tweets that I wrote immediately after coming out of the theater the first time. Because not all of you follow me on Twitter, and I tweeted enough about this movie to pretty much equal a full-length review anyway.

(For more of my thoughts on Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and the MCU, see this post)

I mean look at this

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Book Suggestions for Reluctant Adult Readers

A couple weeks ago, my friend Ashley tweeted this:

We got into a short discussion trying to come up with suggestions for her friend. I wondered what other books she’d liked, to try to get a feel for her taste, and she said her friend didn’t know. Her impression was that her friend thought she should read, but had no idea what she actually liked to read.

Now, I just want to get this out there first — I agree with this. Reading is, of course, a good skill to have, and I don’t think that never reading at all is a great idea, but the idea that everyone should enjoy recreational reading is, in my opinion, flawed. Reading for pleasure is a hobby, and just like watching movies or building model airplanes or running cross-country, it’s not for everyone.

However! I would encourage adults who have never enjoyed reading a book to give it another shot. Lots of us got our first exposure to books in school, and for many of us, the books our teachers picked out were not exactly what we would have picked for ourselves. Not everyone enjoys the classics or literary fiction (I know Teen Me sure didn’t), which is what I know made up most of my high school English curriculum. And while some of us decided to venture outside of our assigned reading lists to find books we did love, others, understandably, gave up.

Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they kept trying, but the books they picked up didn’t resonate. Or maybe something else (poor eyesight, short attention span, dyslexia, or any number of other reasons) made the act of reading itself unappealing.

And maybe they’re fine with that. Which is okay. This post is not intended to shame anyone. Some people just don’t enjoy reading. I don’t enjoy sports or crafts, and no amount of attending football games or covering things in Mod Podge is going to change that. There is no single perfect fit for everyone when it comes to hobbies.

But according to this 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, 3 out of 10 of adults have not read a single book in the past 12 months. And while it’s very possible/likely that a good number of those are people who will never like to read, no matter what, this post is not for those people. Go, non-reading people. Live your lives. Be content and fulfilled.

But I have to believe that some of them would enjoy reading, if they could only find the right book. Just a few days ago, best-selling author James Patterson announced he was launching BookShots, aiming to publish short, catchy novels that can be read in one sitting, designed to ensnare non-readers. There is definitely a contingent of adults who would like to read, but don’t, for whatever reason. I know I see these sorts of requests pop up on Facebook all the time: I don’t read much, but would like to change that. 

So if this is you — or, more likely given the readership of this blog, if this is your friend — this post is for you.

For those who have never really found a book they loved with their whole heart, but still think it could be out there, I wanted to put together a list of book suggestions. James Patterson’s bite-size books will be great for people who find the length of the typical novel daunting, but there are lots of reasons people don’t read that have nothing to do with page count. So I took to social media, asking for help, and the Bookish Internet turned out in force!

I think any book could be the book for someone, but this is a list of titles people thought would be most likely to pull in someone who’s never really understood how a book can make a person cry, or laugh out loud, or stay up all night. A list of books submitted by my social media followers isn’t very scientific, but it’s a start. Much as it might seem simple to tell someone just read about what interests you, turning your interests into a list of books can be overwhelming, even for a seasoned reader. This list may not be comprehensive, but hopefully it’ll at least give you a good jumping off point.

There are plenty of lists of books for reluctant teen readers (and those lists are GREAT), but not so many for reluctant adults. This list contains adult, YA, and even a couple MG, across all genres. I’m not separating out the YA/MG from the adult, since this entire list is already intended for adults. If I have something under the wrong heading, please let me know – I haven’t read all of these, so this categorization is my best educated guess.

I struggled with how detailed to get in this list. Some people’s suggestions came with caveats (this book is really long, but anyone with even the remotest interest in the Civil War will gobble it up) or really specific audience recommendations (this is great for people who are really into WWII stories and espionage). Ultimately, I decided to stick with just a basic genre differentiation, as writing a paragraph’s worth of description for each title would’ve made the list really hard to browse. The Amazon links provide all the extra detail you need.

Titles in red were suggested by multiple people (I could break it down further — how many suggested each — but my social media following really isn’t extensive enough for further detail to be all that meaningful).

* marks a book that is part of a series.

Fantasy

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

*The Cainsville series by Kelley Armstrong

*The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

*A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

*The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker

*The Farseer series by Robin Hobb

*Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

*The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

*The Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

*Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

*Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Science Fiction

*Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Humans by Matt Haig

*The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

The Martian by Andy Weir

*Red Rising by Pierce Brown

*The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold

Realistic Fiction and Romance

The Cordina’s Royal Family series by Nora Roberts

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

The Husband’s Secret by Laura Moriarty

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller

A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Winger by Andrew Smith

Historical Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

*Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

*Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The Revenant by Sonia Gensler

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Wish You Well by David Baldacci

Thriller/Horror/Mystery 

11-22-63 by Stephen King 

*The Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

*The Jack Ryan series by Tom Clancy

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

*The Hunt by Andrew Fukuda

*I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

*Kiss the Girls by James Patterson

Misery by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

*The Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben

*The Pendergast series by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn 

The Stand by Stephen King

*The Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

World War Z by Max Brooks

Non-Fiction/Memoir

1491 by Charles C. Mann

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

And the Dead Shall Rise by Steve Oney

The Color of Water by James McBride

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

Devil in the White City by Erik Lawson 

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

The Order of the Death’s Head by Heinz Zollin Hohne

Stiff by Mary Roach

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Humor

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling

Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Other authors mentioned with no specific works referenced: A.J. JacobsCraig Johnson, Dan Brown, David McCulloughJ.A. JanceJ Maarten TroostJohn Elder RobisonNeil GaimanRainbow RowellSteve Berry, Terry Pratchett, Tracie PetersonJennifer WeinerHaruki Murakami, Karen Kingsbury.

When people just gave me authors without specific titles, they tended to have fairly extensive bodies of work, so take a look at their author pages and see if any write on subjects that interest you. This list includes writers of non-fiction, inspirational fiction, mysteries, fantasy, romance, and everything in between. I’d be really shocked if all of the authors listed above were your cup of tea — but I’d be equally shocked if none of them were.

A few interesting things I’ve noticed while compiling this list:

  • Length seemed to have very little to do with how much reluctant adult readers liked a book. While I think a big component of kids being reluctant readers is actual reading ability, with adults (according to my very unscientific study) it seems to have far more to do with enjoyment. The overwhelming consensus seemed to be that if an adult was interested in the subject matter and the pacing was good, the actual page count was not a turn-off. (That said, not everyone is into reading doorstoppers, and that is totally okay. There are plenty of titles on this list that have lower page counts).
  • The three most-recommended titles by a wide margin: The Martian by Andy Weir, Vicious by V.E. Schwab, and Devil in the White City by Erik Lawson. A sci-fi, an urban fantasy, and a historical non-fiction. Interesting genre spread.
  • Most-recommended genres were thrillers and non-fiction. Thrillers I could’ve guessed — the pacing tends to be quick, without a good place to set a book down — but non-fiction was a surprise, at least to me.
  • That said, there is a lot of crossover fiction above. I put each book in the category it most closely resembles, but a lot of these titles defy simple categorization. There are several books featuring time travel that read like historicals. Tons of the books outside the Thriller category have the pacing of thrillers. And so on and so forth.
  • Lots of these books are what are considered “gateway” titles. Books such as Twilight and Harry Potter are widely known for sucking in people who previously wouldn’t have considered themselves readers, but there are also genre gateway books. Don’t think you like fantasy? Try A Darker Shade of Magic. Not into sci-fi? Try The Martian. Think non-fiction is boring? Maybe pick up Devil in the White City. Maybe it still won’t be your jam…or maybe that genre you didn’t think you liked is better than you think.
  • I wrestled with whether to curate the suggestions I was getting according to what I consider objectionable or problematic, but ultimately I decided not to, for two reasons. 1) I’m not familiar with every author/book on this list, and I certainly don’t want to narrow the list to only books I’ve read, so even if I did curate, it wouldn’t be consistent; and 2) I don’t feel it’s my place to define what’s objectionable or problematic for someone else. What bothers me about a book or an author, you may be totally fine with. Or you may agree with me, but still want to read the book anyway for any number of reasons. So I’m including every suggestion I’ve received, even the ones that made me go hmmm. This is a list for adults, and as such, I’m trusting that anyone using it is capable of using the links provided to determine what they are comfortable reading.
  • Many of these books begin a series, which tend to be great for reluctant readers, as you can stick with something you know you like for multiple books. (There are some books not marked as a series that actually do have sequels or companions, but the first book was originally written as a standalone.) I know series aren’t for everyone, though, so I’ve tried to mark them all, so you don’t accidentally wind up reading the first book of a twelve-book saga when you wanted a standalone.

As always when it comes to matters of taste, YMMV. You may see some titles here that you really struggled with, and I’m positive there are many great books I haven’t included. (If you can think of any you feel should be included, please suggest them in the comments and I’ll add them!) My best suggestion is to follow the links, read the descriptions of the books you’re considering (including the page count – some reluctant readers might devour Pillars of the Earth, while others might find its extensive page count prohibitive), and make an informed decision based on the taste, ability, and comfort level of your intended audience, whether that’s you or someone else. Keep in mind that this is a list for adults, so many of these titles (though certainly not all) will contain mature content.

And lastly, while I’ve focused on novels in this post, remember there are many other ways to read. If novels aren’t your thing, maybe try short story collections or graphic novels or comics; there’s lots of excellent storytelling going on in all formats today. Or if the physical act of reading isn’t a good option for you, try audiobooks. I know lots of people who do most of their reading via audiobooks, while driving or exercising or folding laundry (or just staring at the wall — NO SHAME if that is you). Most of the above listed titles also have an audio version, which should be available through the same link.

The bottom line is that if you want to be a reader, but just haven’t figured out how to make reading work for you yet, it’s never too late to try again.

Have you read any of these? See one you’d like to try? Know an adult reluctant reader who might be willing to give one of these books a shot? Let me know in the comments, and happy reading!

Review: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

I’ve been struggling with how to write my review for V.E. Schwab’s A Gathering of Shadowsthe sequel to last year’s amazing new fantasy A Darker Shade of MagicThough I read it a while ago, it’s one of those books that kind of defies writing an articulate review, since all I really felt capable of doing after reading it was make dolphin noises.

Actually, if dolphin noises and this Dancing Hiddleston are enough for you, that’s really the most apt review for this book.

For everyone else who needs actual words…I’ll do my best.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Four months have passed since the shadow stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Rhy was wounded and the Dane twins fell, and the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift, and into Black London.

In many ways, things have almost returned to normal, though Rhy is more sober, and Kell is now plagued by his guilt. Restless, and having given up smuggling, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks like she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games—an extravagant international competition of magic, meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries—a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

But while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life, and those who were thought to be forever gone have returned. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night reappears in the morning, and so it seems Black London has risen again—meaning that another London must fall.

My Thoughts:

A Gathering of Shadows is a different beast from its predecessor, A Darker Shade of Magic. While the first book in V.E. Schwab’s excellent fantasy series devoted itself largely to establishing the rules of its multiple (and occasionally magical) Londons, introducing its characters, and then throwing them all into tumultuous conflict, the second takes its time luxuriating in the world so meticulously crafted in the first book. It is lighter on conflict, heavier on character development, and chock full of fun. Which may seem an odd thing to say about the sequel to a story that started with so much darkness, but just trust me. Or better yet, trust V.E. Schwab, whose gift for beautiful prose and attention to detail is evident on every page.

Whereas Darker Shade divided its time rather evenly between three of the four Londons, Gathering takes place primarily in Red London, where we spend most of the story swept up in the Essen Tasch (Element Games), a magical tournament pitting the best magicians of each kingdom against one another. Unlike Darker Shade, which follows Kell for the first few chapters, Gathering opens with Lila Bard, whom we last saw dropping anchor in a world that is not her own. We quickly learn that Lila has spent the past several months acquainting herself with the magic and customs of Red London, and has made a place for herself aboard a grand ship, the Night Spire, and endeared herself to its captain, Alucard Emery.

Through Alucard (a delightful and charismatic addition to the cast of characters), Lila learns of the Essen Tasch, and in true Delilah Bard fashion, decides she must enter. Only a few obstacles stand in her way:

  1. The competitors have already been chosen, and she is not among them
  2. Her opponents have been training in magic their entire lives
  3. Lila has never been trained in magic at all

Of course, for a cross-dressing piracy-aspiring thief like Delilah Bard, these are not actually obstacles at all, but merely challenges to overcome. And if we’ve learned anything about Lila in Darker Shade, it’s that she loves a good challenge.

Fortunately for her, Alucard Emery is no stranger to either magic or the courtly customs of Red London. Less fortunately for her, he is also competing in the Essen Tasch. And he intends to win.

And then, of course, there is Kell, whose dreams have been haunted by images of Lila ever since they said farewell. Kell’s relationship with his foster brother, Prince Rhy, changed dramatically at the end of Darker Shade, and as a result, in Gathering we find him still adjusting to both his responsibility to his brother and his role in court.

Without the need to set up the rules of the world anymore, there is more room to explore the people within it. As the Essen Tasch gets underway, we see Kell and Lila, and magic itself, in a way we haven’t ever seen them before. With the delightful and thrilling setting of the competition acting as a backdrop, Gathering delves deeper into its two lead characters, and takes its time in bringing them back together, making the reader yearn for their eventual and inevitable reintroduction. Rhy plays a larger role this time around, as he struggles to come to terms to what happened to him in the previous book while striving to be the prince, son, and brother his family expects, and Alucard brings a refreshing wit and edge to the story, throwing a wrench into the inner workings of all three main characters.

And then beneath, in notes so sparse it’s easy to forget they’re there, lies the menace of Black London. While readers relax into the spectacle of the Essen Tasch, and the interactions of Gathering’s colorful cast of characters, both old and new, Black London simmers underneath, reminding us that this is, indeed, a V.E. Schwab book, where nothing can ever stay light and happy for long.

As Gathering reaches its boiling point, readers may start to panic, wondering how the story can possibly wrap up in the number of pages left. And, well…it doesn’t. As most early readers have noted, Gathering ends on a whopper of a cliffhanger, and even if you’re prepared for not everything to resolve in this book (this is, after all, a trilogy), it’s a shock to hit that last page and abruptly realize there is no more. But just because it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love in this book. From the deeper exploration of the characters to the thrill of the Essen Tasch to the quiet ramping up of Black London, A Gathering of Shadows adds layers and richness to all the things I loved about A Darker Shade of Magic, then throws in a few more for good measure. If you enjoy exquisitely imagined and beautifully written dark historical fantasy, I highly recommend this lush, confident, and wholly immersive series.

Review: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

This past week, I had the privilege of attending Ruta Sepetys’ launch for her newest novel, Salt to the Sea. Although Ruta is a Nashville author and this is her third book, she’s never had a launch party before. Another friend mentioned she was nervous no one would show up (most authors worry about this, no matter how successful they are).

Turns out, she needn’t have worried.

Photo by Parnassus Books

A standing-room-only crowd packed into Parnassus Books in Nashville, and together, we listened, rapt, as Ruta talked about the story behind Salt to the Sea. Like her debut, Between Shades of Gray, which shines a light on the Baltic deportations in the early 1940s, Salt tells the story of a forgotten and tragic piece of history — this time, the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

Most people know about the sinking of Titanic and Lusitania, but far fewer have ever heard of Wilhelm Gustloff, even though it’s the largest maritime disaster in history. Over 9,000 people lost their lives when the Wilhelm Gustloff was ripped apart by Russian torpedoes, more than three times the casualties of the Titanic and Lusitania combined.

Over half of those, Ruta told us, were children and teenagers.

And yet most of the world doesn’t know about it. There are several reasons why this might be; I won’t get into them here. If you ever get a chance to attend one of Ruta’s events (and you should if you can), ask her about it. It’s fascinating. Equally fascinating are the true stories of the survivors Ruta interviewed while researching Salt to the Sea. She told us a couple of them at the launch, and by the time she finished, many of us were in tears. It was a dark, terrible period of our history, but much like in Between Shades of Gray, Ruta was able to uncover stories of heroism, of love, of sacrifice and compassion in the midst of all that horror. These true stories served as the foundation for Salt to the Sea, a fictional account of four teenagers who set sail on the doomed Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

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.

My Thoughts:

Ruta Sepetys has a unique gift. She finds the tragic stories that history forgot and brings them to life through her books, educating her readers on these lost pieces of the past while simultaneously taking them on a heartfelt and emotional journey alongside her characters. Salt to the Sea is a work of historical fiction, but it is based on a very real event — the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in 1945 — and the true historical backdrop is every bit as compelling as the stories of the fictional characters.

Salt to the Sea is told from the point-of-view of four different teenagers, each with a secret. There is Florian, a disillusioned Prussian art restorer; Joana, a clever and determined Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl struggling for hope in a world that continues to betray her; and Alfred, a young Nazi sailor desperately seeking recognition.

I am going to pause here, because you may be nervous about the same thing I was during Alfred’s first chapter — namely, is this book going to attempt to make me sympathize with a Nazi? The short answer is no. I’m not going to say Alfred’s chapters are easy to read — on the contrary; Alfred is an infuriating character, what you would get if you took Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice, aged him down a bit, and handed him a copy of Mein Kampf. And while Salt to the Sea never tries to make the reader sympathize with Alfred or make excuses for him, some readers may not be able to stomach reading his toxic and hateful inner monologue. Only you can decide whether you can handle reading from the POV of a Nazi (and a sniveling, lazy Nazi at that), and I won’t try to change your mind if you don’t think this is something you can do. All I will say is that Alfred’s chapters do contribute to the narrative as a whole, and neither the stakes nor the tension would be the same without his perspective.

However, as much as Alfred is The Worst, the other characters balance the scale. Joana was probably my favorite, a wonderful combination of resourceful, smart, kind, and brave. (Joana also ties into Between Shades of Gray, for those of you who have read both books.) But they all had their moments. Emilia is kind and sweet, but with an underlying determination and selflessness that, on several occasions, took my breath away. And then there is Florian, reserved and secretive, yet motivated by a quiet nobility that kept me rooting for him throughout. I was so very invested in the fates of these three characters that I find myself still daydreaming about them days after finishing.

As for the story itself, I was surprised to find that the characters don’t even board the Wilhelm Gustloff until the second half of the book. (Perhaps I would have been more prepared for this had I realized that the Gustloff was only scheduled for a 48-hour trip, not a weeks-long voyage like the Titanic. So it makes sense that most of our time getting to know the characters happens before they reach the ship.)

The first half of the book chronicles the long trek of the refugees through the snowy countryside on their way to the port (or, in Alfred’s case, his preparations to sail). The journey to the ship is harrowing, as the characters are constantly trying to avoid both German and Russian soldiers, while also staving off frostbite, dehydration, and malnutrition. On the way, there are several horrifying incidents that show the terrible price of war, and even once they reach the port, the descriptions of the refugees are gutting. Sepetys thankfully never lingers on any single gruesome image for long, but through her careful descriptions and meticulously crafted sentences, you get a thorough mental image of the squalor, desperation, and terror of the characters and their surroundings.

Then there is their time on the Gustloff, cut tragically short by the sinking. Since I don’t want to get into spoilers, all I will say is that even though I knew the ship was going to sink, it was still devastating to read about. I was invested so deeply in the characters that watching them go through such an awful experience — no matter their personal outcome — was heartbreaking, and I spent the last chunk of the book reading through tears. It’s one thing to know about a tragic historic event; it’s another thing to experience it. Salt puts the reader right on the deck of the sinking ship, making us feel the panic and terror of the passengers, the biting cold of the water, the hopelessness of the death all around them, and, in spite of that, the steely resolve to keep struggling for survival.

As in her previous books, Ruta Sepetys’ prose shines, instantly transporting the reader to the world of her characters. Some authors struggle to convincingly juggle multiple points-of-view, but that is not the case in Salt to the Sea. Each of her four main characters has a distinctive voice and way of thinking which makes them easily distinguishable from one another. Also, the chapters are very short, with most lasting only two or three pages, so you never have to wait long to hear more from your favorite character. The brief chapters make that mental nudge to read “just one more chapter” easy to indulge, making this an incredibly swift read.

Salt to the Sea is a beautiful tale of a forgotten tragedy, set during one of the darkest periods of our history. It is respectfully and meticulously researched, but never feels like it’s working too hard to educate; instead, it sweeps the reader up in its vivid characters, gorgeous prose, and compelling storytelling, and if we are more historically knowledgeable by the end, that just feels like a bonus. One may expect a tale like this to leave the reader with a sense of despair, but although the story is full of moments of horror and death and unspeakable devastation, it balances them with moments of friendship, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, and kindness. In spite of the bleak time in which it is set, and the disastrous event that serves as its centerpiece, the Salt to the Sea ultimately manages to be hopeful, moving, inspiring, and immensely satisfying.

STAR WARS: The Spoilers Awaken

Guys, I tried. I did. I tried to write a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens without posting spoilers, because posting spoilers on the Internet is the path to the Dark Side. I thought I could be vague (“There’s a thing that happens and it’s amazing!”) and still get most of my pertinent feels across.

But…I can’t. I thought I could, but I can’t.

So if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, please — and I really can’t emphasize this enough, because this is a movie that deserves to be viewed completely unspoiled* — STOP. READING. This is not the spoiler-free review you’re looking for.

*I don’t care if you think you don’t mind spoilers, just this once, you should care.

Okay, so if you’re reading this, you’ve already seen the movie, right? RIGHT?

Don’t you lie to me.

*looks around* So now there shouldn’t be anybody left that hasn’t seen Episode VII. If you haven’t seen it and you keep reading, that’s not my fault. Your fault. Not my fault. Got it? Cool.

*clears throat*

STAR WARS, GUYS, I CANNOT EVEN, CAN YOU EVEN? NO? GOOD BECAUSE I CANNOT EITHER.

Seriously, despite being One of Those People who teared up at every single trailer (how could you not at “Chewie, we’re home”?), and despite being an unapologetic Fan of J.J. Abrams (say what you will about the endings of LOST and Alias or Star Trek Into Darkness; the man knows how to begin things), I was not prepared for how much I loved The Force Awakens. I was ready to love the characters from the Original Trilogy, but I’d figured the others would require a warming period. After all, I’ve loved the Original Trilogy my entire life. I have three decades worth of emotional investment in these characters. How could the new blood possibly measure up?

Oh, how gloriously wrong I was.

So let’s take them one at a time, in the order they are introduced, shall we?

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)

I was surprised that Poe is the first major character we meet. Based on the trailers, I thought it would be Rey, or possibly Finn. I also didn’t expect to have all that many feelings about him. But in just a few minutes of screen time, I was solidly Team Poe. His first line when he comes face to, er, mask with Kylo Ren endeared him to me forever. (“Do I talk first or you talk first? I talk first?”) Everything about Poe Dameron was utter perfection, from his clear affection for BB-8 (another surprise! I’d been all prepared for the Rey-BB-8 buddy show, but much as R2’s loyalty was to Luke, BB-8’s metal heart belongs to Poe Dameron) to his affable swagger when he teams up with Finn (“I can fly anything”) to his triumphant return later in the movie and his elated hug with Finn when they realize the other is still alive.

Let’s just dwell on that hug for a second. Poe and Finn had met exactly once, and while Finn latching on to Poe as his BFF is semi-understandable since Finn was a brainwashed Stormtrooper and had exactly zero friends, Poe is a charismatic guy with, presumably, other people he cares about, and who care about him. (Granted, probably a lot of them died in that opening scene, but hopefully not all of them.) And yet he is so elated to see Finn alive. It warmed my heart to see him care so genuinely and deeply about poor displaced Finn, and I am now significantly hopeful that a good chunk of Episode VIII will include The Broscapades of Finn and Poe.

BB-8

First, let’s just get out of the way how utterly adorable the bond between BB-8 and Poe is. When Leia entrusted R2-D2 with her message for Obi-Wan in A New Hope, she was all business. There was no affection between her and the droid (C-3P0 didn’t even really know who Leia was, other than that she was a figure “of some importance”), and it wasn’t until R2 delivered his message to Obi-Wan and Luke that we really saw an emotional bond begin to form. But The Force Awakens puts the human-droid bond front and center, with Poe literally tearing up as he gives vital information to BB-8 and tells him to get as far away as possible, then promises, “I will find you.” (Dangit, now I’m getting emotional about Poe again, and I’m supposed to be talking about BB-8.) But I thought this was an excellent way to get the audience immediately invested in this new droid (I can’t have been the only one highly skeptical about a new cutesy addition to the Star Wars-verse, right?), since if Poe Dameron cares so deeply about him, and Poe Dameron is so clearly awesome, then surely I should care about him too.

And it didn’t take long for BB-8 to establish himself as worthy of that emotional investment. From the delightful physical gags (how a bike helmet on a beach ball managed to give a thumbs up was one of the funniest visuals of the movie) to his sassy personality (sure, we can’t understand him, but Rey can, and watching her react was enough), BB-8 quickly proved that not only did he deserve his place beside R2 and C-3P0 as one of the most beloved droids in Star Wars, but he might…actually…be my new favorite?

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)

I am so excited about Kylo Ren, guys. Until now, Star Wars has given us a very clear line between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. Even Luke and Anakin/Vader, the only truly conflicted characters, tended to not straddle the line so much as pole-vault across it when it served their purpose. But Kylo! He is something we haven’t seen before. A character who actively chose the Dark Side but is tempted by the Light. A character estranged from his parents (no one was really surprised to find that Kylo Ren — formerly one Ben Solo — was Han and Leia’s son, right?), pressured by his father to turn away from what he knows and give into temptation — but in the opposite way of how we’ve seen this play out before.

Kylo Ren is like a film negative of Luke Skywalker, and I love it. Such possibilities for future installments! Will Kylo give into his temptation to join the good guys? What was it that pushed him to join the Dark Side in the first place, since his full heart clearly wasn’t in it? (Obviously he has some anger issues, but that can’t be the whole story, can it?)

I know now is where I should talk about That Major Thing He Does, but I’m not ready for that. I’ll get to it in a bit. Just as soon as I talk about —

Finn (John Boyega)

I’d like to thank J.J. Abrams, along with whoever else was responsible for casting, for bringing John Boyega into the Star Wars-verse. From surprising fans at Star Wars screenings to freaking out on his first viewing of the Force Awakens trailer to just being genuinely classy in the face of some genuinely unclassy comments about his casting, he’s just been a real treat to watch and I’m glad that Star Wars brought him onto my radar.

But I’m not here to talk about John Boyega. I’m here to talk about Finn. Finn.

Admittedly, we don’t get a ton of backstory on Finn (which is nothing new for Star Wars; the Original Trilogy gave us practically nothing on the Main Trio), but what we do know — taken from his family at an age so young he doesn’t remember them, trained as a soldier, treated as a slave, “conditioned” not to have any thoughts of his own — makes him even more interesting. When we see the Stormtroopers burning Poe’s village to the ground, Finn is the only one hesitates to kill the innocent civilians. Finn is the only one visibly shaken by the death of his comrades (perhaps even friends?). Finn is also the only Stormtrooper in the entire series to willingly remove his helmet (correct me if I’m wrong, as I’ve purposely blocked out the prequels, but in the Original Trilogy, the only helmets we see removed are worn by Luke and Han).

What is it about him that allows him to break free? Could it be…a capacity for the Force? Or is Finn just an innately good person, and that goodness couldn’t be wiped out of him, no matter how much First Order conditioning he received? Surely his line when he rescues Poe — “It’s the right thing to do” — shows his strength of character (where did he even learn the difference between right and wrong during his conditioning?). Despite Finn’s struggle throughout the movie between taking care of himself and taking care of his new friends, nothing highlights that inner strength more than at the end when he takes up Luke’s lightsaber(!) and battles (!) Kylo Ren(!!!).

Compared to how flashy and over-choreographed the prequel lightsaber battles were, can I just tell you how much I loved how raw the fights were in The Force Awakens? You have Kylo — a partially trained Jedi with a serious temper problem — and Finn, a former Stormtrooper who knows his way around a blaster, but has never trained with any other form of weaponry, just flailing madly at each other. It’s not polished, it’s not pretty, but it is amazing. Never before have any of the other Star Wars movies ever driven home the pure brutality of these weapons, but in this fight we have sizzling snow and smoldering garments and burned flesh. Even when Vader was lopping off Luke’s hand in Empire, it was all very clean and precise, but this fight was messy. And so when Finn loses — Finn loses — it hurts. It hurts him, and it hurts us, because we saw how much effort that battle took, how scared he was, how far out of his league, but how he kept fighting a losing battle because it was the right thing to do.

I need a minute. I’m awash in Finn feels and my screen is suddenly blurry. And I need my full wits about me to talk about —

Rey (Daisy Ridley)

Can we just…take a moment and bask in the glory that is Rey?

I was not prepared for how much I loved Rey (and how much I loved Daisy Ridley as Rey. It reminded me of the feeling I had watching Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, another character I was not prepared to love half as much as I did/do, and how even though I’d only seen her in the one movie, I was now willing to follow her to every movie ever). Every time I thought, okay, this is it, I love her as much as I possibly can, the movie would give us something else to love. The entire sequence where she meets Finn, from her knocking out her assailants before Finn can “rescue” her, to her constant “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” protests, to her reluctance to steal the “garbage” Millennium Falcon, followed by her surprise!ability to pilot the Millennium Falcon, was pure gold.

And then I could take you through all the best Rey moments in the rest of the movie, but I won’t, because that’s like the entire movie? Every single scene she was in was magical. When she taught herself to use the Force on the Stormtrooper? When Luke’s lightsaber flew past Kylo into her hand? When she met Leia’s eyes and went straight into her arms without ever meeting her (IN THIS MOVIE, ANYWAY)? When it was just understood that the Falcon was hers now, and Chewie was her new co-pilot, and she found Luke and held out the lightsaber and a world of understanding passed between them?

*deep breath*

Suffice it to say that Rey is a phenomenal character to hang this new franchise on, and I can’t wait to see the rest of her journey.

The Original Trilogy Characters 

I don’t want to say I was worried about seeing Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3P0, R2-D2, and Luke again. I wasn’t. I was actually overjoyed to see them again. But I worried a bit that they’d feel shoehorned into the new story, that their inclusion would wind up feeling more sad than triumphant, that they’d feel peripheral to the main plot.

I was so wrong. I was so pleased with how the old and new wove together seamlessly. I loved that we are not dealing just with “the next generation” in terms of age, but with the literal next generation of these characters, since Kylo is Han and Leia’s offspring. Not only did they fit in this story, but this story could not have existed without them. But at the same time, the new characters were allowed to carry most of the weight. That is no small feat, and I was so, so impressed with how they pulled it off. I’ve rarely (right now, I’d say never, but I could probably think of something if I gave myself enough time to think about it) seen such a smooth passing of the torch in a franchise.

I loved the little ways they aged up the characters. Han and Leia, being human, aged more obviously, but they also gave us C-3P0’s red arm (“You probably don’t recognize me.”), and even Chewie has become a bit of a crotchety old man. I was nervous about Mark Hamill, having just seen him as The Trickster on The Flash, where he was looking markedly un-Jedi-like, but I thought he pulled off the Force Hermit look well. I do wish we’d gotten at least one line out of him, but with Han gone, I’m guessing Episode VIII will be the Luke and Rey show.

Which brings me to…

That Big Thing Kylo Does

Guys, I know, I know, I am as devastated as you are, but Han had to die. Not just because Harrison Ford has wanted him dead for 30 years, but because this is not Han’s story. It never was, really. It was always Luke’s story. Han arguably had a small arc in the original trilogy — he went from being someone who was only out to save his own skin to someone who would risk himself to save his friends — but Star Wars has never been about Han Solo. At its core, one of the central conflicts of Star Wars has always been about identity, and the struggle between who you think you are vs. who others want you to be. Han Solo has always had a firm grasp on who he is and what he wants, and that hasn’t changed throughout the entire saga.

But by killing Han Solo off — killing him at the hand of his son, so that he can complete his transition to the Dark Side — we’ve once again put that central conflict of identity front and center. Because it’s not about Han, it’s about Kylo. Who Kylo wants to be versus who Han still hopes he is. It’s that pivotal Luke Skywalker choice all over again, but flipped, and it is even more gutting than Luke’s original confrontation with Vader, because when Kylo triumphs over his father, it’s not what we want at all. For so much of this movie, we were lulled into believing that if Rey is this generation’s Luke, Kylo is Vader, but that’s not the case. They’re both Luke — one as we know him, the other as he could have been. And this choice — for Kylo to kill Han as Rey looks on, horrified — drives that parallel home.

So much of The Force Awakens was re-treading familiar ground, but Han’s death sets the story on a new path we haven’t been down before. What if Luke gave in to the emperor’s taunts and struck down his father? What if, despite the part of him that still felt pulled toward the Light Side, he chose the Dark? What if, instead of balancing on that line, he toppled over it? Could he ever climb back to the other side? Would we even want him to?

Honestly, my only beef with that entire scene — which was so, so well done — was that the writers missed an opportunity for this exchange:

Kylo: [holds out saber hilt]

Han: [taking Kylo’s hand] Your mother and I…we love you.

Kylo: [tears in his eyes] I know.

Kylo: [stabs Han]

WHY DID THIS NOT HAPPEN? I can only imagine it’s because they’re saving the “I love you”/”I know” exchange for Leia/Kylo in a future installment. Because if this franchise does not give me the Solo Family turning that iconic endearment from an expression of romantic love into one of familial love, I just don’t even understand what I’m doing here.

ETA: Also! I just want to point out the beautiful symmetry between how we meet Han in A New Hope and how he leaves in The Force Awakens. The first time we see him, after he’s finished wheeling and dealing with Obi-Wan, is when he’s confronted by Greedo, and Han — as all true Star Wars fans can attest — shoots first. It’s Han on the offensive, acting before anyone else can, motivated by a strong sense of self-preservation.

But in his last scene, his death is the direct result of Han deliberately choosing not to act. Han Solo has finally found something he cares about more than himself, and he is willing to forego that self-preservation instinct — to go as far as having a weapon placed in his hand and still not using it — if there’s a chance it might save his son. Like so much else surrounding Kylo Ren, this scene mirrors that first one, but takes it in the opposite way of what we’ve seen before. I thought it was a brilliant, moving way to say goodbye to this beloved character, and highlighted the character growth in Han that’s been happening off-screen for the past 30 years.

So there are (most of) my spoilerific thoughts on The Force Awakens! (There are more, but this post is already a dissertation.) What were your favorite parts? Who was your favorite character? I can discuss this forever, so please, if I forgot to mention something awesome, LET ME KNOW.

ETA: Rey is totally Luke’s daughter, right?