Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys


“They took me in my nightgown.” So begins teenage Lina’s horrific journey from her beloved home in Lithuania to the icy land of Siberia, when she and her family are deported by the Soviets who have annexed her country and are systematically ridding it of anyone they consider “anti-Soviet.” Lina, her mother and brother are separated from her father and packed into cattle cars that travel ever farther North to hardscrabble beet and potato farms where deportees are literally worked to death. There are many times along the way that Lina wants to give up. Like when a fellow traveler is shot in the head and dumped from the train for mourning her lost child. Or when her younger brother gets scurvy from months of starvation rations. But through it all, Lina’s beautiful mother Elena keeps the family’s spirits up by constantly telling them that not only will their imprisonment soon end, but they will find their father and all live together again in their own house. Lina just tries to make it through each long hungry day, only made bearable by her mother’s hope, her ability to lose herself by drawing, and her crush on Andrius, a fellow prisoner. Then, another blow. Lina and her family are being sent North again, this time to Siberia where the sun doesn’t rise for six months and the cold can kill. Lina’s despair is complete. How can she keep believing in her mother’s words when she is surrounded on all sides by darkness and death? In Between Shades of Gray, author Ruta Sepetys, herself the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings to light a little known period of history that many Americans are unfamiliar with: the systematic deportation of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, business owners, or anyone considered “counter-revolutionary” from the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia during dictator Josef Stalin’s reign (1922-1953). In her author’s note at the back of the novel, Sepetys states, “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror. The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet genocide…to this day, many Russians deny they ever deported a single person.” Sepetys’ unflinching portrayal of the work camps and the bravery of the people who survived them will tug at your heart and hurt your head. And I’m not the only one both devastated and uplifted by Lina’s story. Check out these other reviews of Between Shades of Gray, then head to your nearest library, bookstore or ereader to experience the heartbreak for yourself. 4 weepies.

Chime by Franny Billingsley

If Tender Morsels had a love child with Madapple, and My Sweet Audrina was the midwife, it might turn out looking like Franny Billingsley’s crazy good new fantasy, CHIME. It’s sometime in the nineteen aughts, and seventeen-year-old Briony, daughter of a rural clergyman, is convinced she’s a witch. How does she know? Well, there’s the little matter of the time she called up a wind to dump her twin sister Rose out of a swing when they were little, resulting in Rose’s peculiar behavior ever since. Then there was the afternoon she got mad at Stepmother, and spirited up a water being that nearly drowned her when it flooded the parsonage and ruined all the books in the library. And if that’s not enough, consider the fact that she can talk to all the brownies, sprites and fairies that only she can see in the swamp behind her home, and you’ve got a bona fide broom rider on your hands. Briony knows she’s nothing but bad news, and hopes that by punishing herself by staying away from the swamp she can avoid being found out. Witches are still hanged in her neck of the woods, and Briony prays to never be looked at twice by the Chime Child, a village woman born at the stroke of midnight who uses her gift of second sight to identify potential spell-casters. Then dashing Eldric comes to town, a college drop-out with a silver tongue who falls hard for Briony and refuses to let her go on tormenting herself. He starts asking questions, and soon Briony begins to realize that everything she thought to be true about herself and her family may be a colossal lie. But if she’s not a witch, then what is she? And what is the secret that the swamp spirits and Eldric have been trying to tell her that she refuses to believe? A magical amalgamation of fantasy, religion, turn of the century technology, horror and hot romance, this at times claustrophobic first person narration of a girl trying to find out who she is in a world turned upside down by secrets and lies is absolutely spellbinding. Billingsley uses the symbols of Briony’s changing world to make subtle statements about the strict societal roles of men and women, the questionable advantages of technological progress, and the loss civilization suffers when we begin to forget our myths and legends. But don’t expect a fast paced adventure–secrets are revealed slowly here, layer by layer in luscious prose that will make you pause on every page. Delectable!

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Lord of the Flies meets 90210 (the Donna/Kelly classic version) in this hilarious send-up of a beauty pageant gone very wrong. The state contestants of Miss Teen Dream have just crash landed on a deserted island. Their chaperons and camera crew are dead, and most of their lip-gloss and flat irons have floated out to sea. At first they keep practicing their routines under the eagle eyes of Miss Texas, a take-no-prisoners blond glamazon, confident that they will be rescued before their suntan lotion runs out. But as the days go by and no plane or ship appears, the girls begin to form a strong matriarchal tribe, capable of defending itself with stiletto catapults, makeup splat guns and melted jewelry arrowheads. They start to ask each other questions like, why do girls always seem to say “sorry” whenever they happen to express a strong emotion or feeling? And what does “act like a lady” mean anyway? They begin to think, “Maybe girls need an island to find themselves. Maybe they need a place where no one’s watching them so they can be who they really are.” But even as they start to understand themselves better emotionally, the beauty queens are in real physical danger. What they don’t know is that they have actually settled on a top-secret government stronghold that is about to become the target of an illegal weapons trade. If the girls aren’t careful, they will become nothing more than pretty collateral damage. But then the reality television pirates show up, and what happens next could only be cooked up by the mad-cap brain of fiendishly clever award-winning author Libba Bray. While the booby/bullets (those are actually cheekily placed lipstick tubes) cover may lead you to believe that this is a fluffy beach read, think again, my teenage friends. This book may look like a cheesy reality-show rom-com on the surface, but under all the hairspray and beaded gowns is a deep read about what it means to be a girl AND a dude in today’s label-crazy society. A fun romp with food for thought–don’t you dare miss it!