Thursday, 5 April 2012

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Released: March 22nd, 2011
Publisher: Philomel Books
Pages: 344
Buy The Book: Amazon

"Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions. Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously-and at great risk-documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives."

I'd read a glowing review of this book but I'll admit I initially thought it was a little out of my comfort zone. I didn't know much about Stalin or his regime before I read it, and historical accounts turned into fiction don't usually catch my attention. But this is an astounding story of courage and hope, and I'm glad that it was given a platform.

I had previously read Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, which is wonderful in all its flowery, liquid language and description, so to go from that to the stark depictions of life in a Siberian prison camp was quite a shock to the system, but the bare frankness of the prose here serves to illustrate how exposed these people truly were. It never feels like the novel is playing on the reader's emotions or even trying to elicit sympathy; it simply states the facts in a very naked, honest way. Despite the bleak setting of the novel, there are some truly heartwarming scenes which show the human race at its best. Ruta Sepetys spoke to many Lithuanians who had survived this ordeal and some of the incidents represented in the book take inspiration from real life accounts; it makes you truly marvel at their spirit.

Most of the novel focuses on the relationships between Lina and her family, but it was interesting to see how a romance would slot into the story. It followed the pattern of the rest of the novel, in that it wasn't obvious or overwrought, but subtle and rather more enigmatic than some romance plots. It played second fiddle to the overarching story, which was a pleasant surprise, as many novels aimed at young adults tend to use romance to push along the plot. 

I felt a little more closure could have been offered with the ending. I don't want to stray into spoiler territory but the end, when it arrives, is rather abrupt, and could have been better explained. I suppose with this kind of historical/fictional account, endings aren't neatly wrapped up anyway, but that was my only complaint of the novel. The book is presented as a young adult novel but some of the themes aren't suitable for a younger audience; I'd recommend it to more mature readers.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Release Date: September 27th, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Pages: 432
Buy The Book: Amazon

"Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she's prone to disappearing on mysterious "errands"; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she's about to find out. When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?"

I had never heard of Laini Taylor's past work, and I seem to have stumbled across this book entirely by accident, but it is a beautiful book. It's one of the first books I've read on my new Kindle and I've enjoyed playing around with the 'highlights' feature - there are so many gorgeous phrases and passages I wanted to remember from this book, it seemed I was highlighting every page.

The first half of the story is set mainly in Prague; a gothic, romantic setting for a book like this, with talk of angels impaling themselves on the Czech church spires as they fall from heaven. The setting is wonderfully imaginative and a perfect launchpad for the dark and mythical goings-on that take place. I like books which take common folklore or myth and flip it on its head; too often you read stories about good girls who fall for bad boys, princesses who fall for stable boys etc. And too often there are definite lines drawn, so that readers know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. This book has no lines whatsoever; you're not sure who to sympathise with, you're not sure which side you're on. It's intriguing.

For the last quarter of the book, the story switches into flashback mode and, as a reader, at this point I became much more aware of the scope and scale of what Laini Taylor is trying to do. The story stops being one girl's search for her identity and starts to become an all-out fight for revolution and peace between two races as old as the earth. And isn't that what we like our fantasy fiction to be?!

Lovers of fantasy fiction shouldn't need any persuasion to read this book. It's really quite astonishing in parts. But just in case you need a little push in the right direction, here is one of my favourite passages; a description of Akiva the angel.

"His gaze was heat across her cheeks, her lips. It was touch. His eyes were hypnotic, his brows black and velvet. He was copper and shadow, honey and menace, the severity of knife-blade cheekbones and a widow's peak like the point of a dagger. All that and the muted snap of invisible fire..."