Review: SUFFER LOVE by Ashley Herring Blake

You know those tasks you really should get to, but you have so much time in which to get to them that it’s really not important that you do them right now? So you put them off, and put them off, watching your available time shrink and shrink and shrink until there’s barely enough time to get them done? But by then it’s stressful and rushed, and that gives you anxiety, so instead of buckling down and getting through your tasks, you put them off even more? Until there’s no possible way you can get them done in time, so really, why even try? And then you give up and feel like a failure and claim things “just got away from you,” but you know the truth?

Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.

Anyway, this has been me and Ashley Herring Blake’s gorgeous YA debut, Suffer Love.

Ashley, as anyone who even casually follows me on Twitter probably knows, is one of my critique partners, but we didn’t meet until after she’d already written and sold Suffer Love. However, she said she could use one more pair of eyes on it before she went into copyedits, so she sent it to me and I read it over, making a few tiny suggestions here and there, but mostly just being utterly absorbed in and swept away by the characters and their story.

This was — I just looked it up — November, 2014.

Suffer Love released in May of this year.

Which means I’ve had a year and a half to write this review and put it up before the release date, and I still didn’t manage to get it done in time.

Anyway, I’m finally getting to it now, because I loved this book and I love Ashley and it deserves a glowing review…even if it’s a little late.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“Just let it go.”

That’s what everyone keeps telling Hadley St. Clair after she learns that her father cheated on her mother. But Hadley doesn’t want to let it go. She wants to be angry and she wants everyone in her life—her dad most of all—to leave her alone.

Sam Bennett and his family have had their share of drama too. Still reeling from a move to a new town and his parents’ recent divorce, Sam is hoping that he can coast through senior year and then move on to hassle-free, parent-free life in college. He isn’t looking for a relationship…that is, until he sees Hadley for the first time.

Hadley and Sam’s connection is undeniable, but Sam has a secret that could ruin everything. Should he follow his heart or tell the truth?

My Thoughts:

It’s well-known that parents are scarce in YA literature. Either they’re dead, or they’re absent, or they’re around but strangely invisible. It’s understandable; YA is about teens, and it’s hard to put teens front and center if their parents are continually barging in and trying to take charge. So many YA stories deal with this by simply removing the parents, or shifting them to the background.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. One of the main audiences of YA is, in fact, teenagers, and it makes total sense that they’d want to read stories about characters their age, not about their parents. I find absolutely no fault with authors who would rather focus on their teen characters and keep adults mostly out of the mix.

However, I’m a little bit backwards. I was one of those teens who read a lot of adult literature, and now I’m an adult who reads a lot of YA. As such, I’ve always been drawn to stories that feature both perspectives, the adult and the teen. I find it fascinating to explore where they clash, where they overlap, where the gap in years of life experience is an asset and where it’s a hindrance.

Suffer Love is one of those rare YA books that, while remaining solidly YA, really digs in and explores those questions. Sam and Hadley, the two teen narrators, are both dealing with the fallout of their parents’ infidelity. One family has already split apart, the other is trying to stay together but finding it a challenge. One narrator knows the sordid details of their parent’s affair, the other does not. Both are struggling to redefine their relationships with their parents and families, while still working through lingering feelings of anger and betrayal. The parents in both families are well-drawn, fully realized characters, but even when they’re not on the page, their presence is felt. Suffer Love doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions about the relationships between parents and teens, the mistakes both sides can make, and how both parties can move forward after being shaken to their core.

But much as I loved the way Suffer Love is a story about parents and kids and the particular hurting and healing that occurs within families, it’s about more than that. It’s about first love, and grief, and friendship. It’s two people in pain finding each other and realizing that they can heal better together than they can apart. It’s about loyalty, and secrets, and trying to make a good decision when all of the choices available to you are bad.

Sam and Hadley both felt like real people to me as I read. The alternating points of view were never confusing, with each having their own distinct voice and purpose. The side characters never felt peripheral either, and each had their own moments to shine, particularly Sam’s best friend Ajay (my favorite character) and Sam’s younger sister, Livy. Suffer Love is one of those books where you just want to hang out with several of the characters after the book ends, and maybe give a few of them hugs, not just because they need one, but also because you feel so connected to them.

The prose is lush and gorgeous but never gets overly flowery, and is infused with plenty of humor, as well as a hefty dose of Shakespearean references (including quite a few nods to my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, from which Suffer Love gets its title). It’s one of those books that strikes the perfect balance between lovely writing and compulsive readability, and I found that once the pages started turning, they didn’t stop.

Suffer Love is a beautiful, emotional story of grief and healing, of trust and friendship, of heartbreak and first love. It is about romance, and family, and the lengths a person will go to for the people they love. If you already love contemporary YA, or haven’t tried it yet and are searching for just the right book to get your feet wet, Ashley Herring Blake’s Suffer Love is a riveting and poignant debut, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.

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. 

L2GI2c8

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

dwvf6b2619ar4fp68i3r

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.