Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys (@RutaSepetys)

Ruta, if you’re reading this, prepare to blush. I’m about to fangirl just a bit.

Ruta Sepetys is, hands down, one of the sweetest, most thoughtful authors I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (and that’s saying something, because all of them have been amazingly wonderful people). She came to a multi-author panel I attended in the fall — not as a panelist, but as an audience member — and we got to talking afterwards. After she asked all about me and humbly deflected praise (from herself onto the tragic period of history that her book highlights) from several awed readers who came up to gush about how much they loved Between Shades of GrayI mentioned that I was looking forward to her upcoming book, Out of the Easy. “Oh, do you not have a copy yet?” she asked. “Well, email me your address and I’ll be sure you get one!” And four days later, there was a thick envelope containing an ARC of her lovely new book in my mailbox. Because Ruta is awesome and all about her readers.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

My Thoughts 

Out of the Easy is a very different type of book than Between Shades of Gray, but they do have some similarities. Much as Between Shades of Gray did not shy away from describing the horrors of labor camps, Out of the Easy doesn’t sugarcoat the seedy world that Josie lives in, and it makes no apologies. Josie was raised in a brothel until she was twelve, and while she wishes for more, her life is a revolving door of prostitutes, mobsters and criminals. And much like Gray, there’s very few clear-cut good and bad guys in this story. One of the strongest characters in the story is Willie Woodley, the brothel madam. One of the most despicable is a successful and “upstanding” businessman.  And there’s a whole myriad of characters in between. Like her first book, Ruta has written a book that makes you think, really examine the hearts of the characters even when you may not agree with their actions. She takes tough situations and examines them through a new lens.

As expected, Ruta’s prose is gorgeous. Even when she’s describing some very unpleasant things, I just want to luxuriate in her writing. She has a way of drawing a reader into her world, and the way she described the sights and smells and sounds of Josie’s New Orleans was visceral and real. Everything from the bookstore to the brothel was beautifully described. New Orleans was the perfect setting for the story, and the city itself was a character, not just a backdrop.

Getting into the characters themselves, Josie was a fabulous protagonist. She was tough but also vulnerable, disenchanted yet hopeful. I wanted her to succeed, but understood all the things holding her back. Some of them were external, and others were of her own doing. Ruta excels at writing nuanced characters, with all their strengths and flaws and shining moments and rough edges, and Josie was a prime example of that.

Other strong characters were Willie, who despite her profession and calloused demeanor, has a soft spot for Josie; and Patrick, the son of man who owns the bookshop where Josie lives and works. My heart hurt for Patrick every time I saw him interacting with his deteriorating father, and I think their relationship alone could have filled a novel. And if there was an award for best supporting character in a novel, Willie would get it.

Some of the others weren’t quite as fleshed out as I would have liked. Jesse, one of Josie’s potential love interests, was one. I wish I knew more about him, because he seemed like a guy with an interesting story to tell. And Josie never really understands her wayward mother, which means I never did either. It’s probably for the best; knowing her better may have made me too angry to keep going. The truly bad guys — the mobsters and criminals — stuck to the shadows of the book, and always remained more ominous threats than actual characters. The more grayscale characters, like the businessman Josie blackmails into giving her a college recommendation, got under my skin far more than the black-and-white bad guys.

The plot in Out of the Easy moves gradually, propelled more by Josie and her journey of self-discovery than action or the murder mystery. If you’re looking for an action-packed thriller, this isn’t it. Out of the Easy has its moments of excitement, but it’s mostly quiet and introspective. It has touches of many things — danger, suspense, romance — but the real essence of the story is Josie’s growth as a person, why she wants to get out of New Orleans, who she hopes to become, and the things holding her back.  It’s emotional and exhausting and lovely, and I hope you get a chance to experience it for yourself.

Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (@RutaSepetys)

For months, people have been telling me how much I needed to read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. And for months, I’ve been intending to read it, but putting it off. Then I discovered Ruta is another Nashville author, and I met her at a couple different book events. If you ever have a chance to meet her, she is just a fabulous individual. After meeting her, I went ahead and bought the book, since now I had many recommendations plus I knew I liked the author herself, but it still took me a little while to get around to reading it. And after devouring it, I can not only understand why so many people have recommended this book to me, but also add my voice to the throng of people insisting that others read it.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

It’s 1941 and fifteen-year-old artist Lina Vilkas is on Stalin’s extermination list. Deported to a prison camp in Siberia, Lina fights for her life, fearless, risking everything to save her family. It’s a long and harrowing journey and it is only their incredible strength, love, and hope that pull Lina and her family through each day. But will love be enough to keep them alive?

My Thoughts

Okay, first of all, I didn’t even know the Baltic deportations happened. And after reading the author’s note that follows the story, a lot of people don’t know it happened. But it did. Many of the events in this book are based on things that actually happened. So I’m glad I read this book not only for the beautiful writing and the moving story, but also because it opened my eyes to an extremely dark period in human history that has been largely ignored by the rest of the world.

As for the story itself, it is heartbreaking, but also encouraging. Lina and her little brother are forced to grow up fast in the labor camps, and their strength is inspiring. Probably one of my absolute favorite characters was their mother, and I found myself aching with what she must have gone through in order to try to make life bearable for her children. I also found the array of characters extremely interesting. Not all the prisoners are inspiring — one, in particular, drove me crazy every time he opened his mouth — and not all the guards are despicable. I always find it fascinating when stories will explore why good people may be pushed to do terrible things, and while this one doesn’t dive too deeply into that subject — since its narrator is a 15-year-old deportee — it touched on it in a thought-provoking way.

The events are extremely difficult to read about. From the moment the Vilkas family is pulled from their home, nothing that happens to them is easy or pleasant. Many of the things that happen are shocking and terrible, and all the more horrifying to know that humans once found this sort of treatment acceptable. Good and admirable characters wither and die, while abominable characters thrive. Much like reading about the Holocaust, reading about the Baltic deportations is not a pleasant experience.

At the same time, the writing is lovely. Ruta tells the story using sparse and simple prose that cut straight to the emotional core of what is happening. It took no time at all for me to be completely immersed in the story, and while the events it depicted were appalling, the way they were presented was beautiful. It made the small moments of love and kindness in the midst of an incredibly bleak time shine through that much more.

I think Between Shades of Gray is already on many school reading lists, as it should be. It’s both educational and moving, a fantastic example of both fine writing and important storytelling. I loved it even as it broke my heart again and again, and I’d recommend this book to anyone.

Content Guide: Contains terrible mistreatment of prisoners including starvation, verbal abuse, sexual exploitation, humiliation, and deprivation; disturbing deaths