The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Ashbury-Brookfield pen pal program is designed to bring together the two rival schools in a spirit of harmony and “the Joy of the Envelope.” But when Cassie, Lydia, and Emily send their first letters to Matthew, Charlie, and Sebastian, things don’t go quite as planned. What starts out as a simple letter exchange soon leads to secret missions, false alarms, lock picking, mistaken identities, and an all-out war between the schools–not to mention some really excellent kissing.

While reading this book, I developed a closer attachment than I originally thought I would. I might have said this before, but I’m not much of a contemporary YA reader-person – I have a tendency to be easily bored by reading about what I see as the normalness of every-day life and experiences. I already live in the world I’m reading about. Why should I read about someone living in the same exact world as I am, especially if the protagonist and I happen to live in similar circumstances – student, American, white, etc. (Although in this case, replace American for Australian, what with the story taking place in Australia.)

Even with this book there were things that made me roll my eyes more than a little. Emily, Cassie, and Lydia are three incredibly privileged girls who come from wealthy, lawyer families and attend an upper-crust private school, whereas their penpals are boys attending a public school with a reputation for crime and deviancy, and at least two of those penpals are decidedly less well-off than the girls are. Considering the connections forged between the two sides in the letters, I am a little surprised that class or school differences weren’t bigger issues they had to work through.

There were also the bits that made the story look just too convenient – like the fact that the three girls all happened to end up with three boys and that by the end, two of the pairs are in romantic relationships. And then there’s the fact that with one major exception, the letter-writing goes well and there’s actual communication and rapport that develops between Emily, Charlie, Lydia, and Seb. Maybe I’m just cynical about my high school days and what people were like back then (me among them), but it felt a bit forced that simply by luck and happenstance that four high school strangers would grow to be that into communicating in depth to each other, through letters no less. That’s just me, though.

With all that out of the way, I can start with how I really liked Emily, Lydia, and Cassie’s unique writing styles, ways of describing the world they live in, and communication skills. Emily started out as the more annoying, bubbly one who’s incredibly full of herself, but when it comes to her two best friends, she’s the sweetest person on earth and becomes like a mother hen when one of them is hurt. I preferred Lydia more than the other two from the get-go – once I read her snarky responses to her Notebook™ that’s supposed to help her become a better writer, I knew she was speaking my language. She’s the more negative and closed-off of the three and likes playing games more than being open and honest. She does care about people and if Emily’s the mother hen when someone she loves gets hurt, Lydia’s the mama bear, ready to rip the culprit to shreds. Cassie’s been dealing with her father’s death and she’s not sure of the person she seems to have become in the process, and so uses the penpal project and telling all about herself to a complete stranger as a means of therapy and exploration. Unfortunately for her, this backfires on her spectacularly. Cassie plays less of an active role over the course of the book, but overall it’s about her and how her friends care about and look after her well-being. The final showdown of the story, while not directly about Cassie, brings about closure for her and what gives her the courage to begin to grow as a person.

Charlie and Seb, Emily and Lydia’s penpals were interesting enough people, but I never felt like we got as much insight into them as the girls, largely because we only have their letters and we get other forms of documents for the girls in addition to their letters. Also, like I said earlier, I was irritated that both of them fell so spectacularly in love with their penpals so easily and then spent a lot of time flirting with Emily and Lydia, especially Seb. The girls do fall in love with them as well, but I was still annoyed at how much romance had play a part in these guys’ relationship with them.

The book was written in epistolary fashion and it worked very well. The story largely takes place in the penpal letters each of the characters send each other, as well as a couple of school notices, Lydia’s Notebook™, and Cassie’s diary. The pacing of the three pairs of letters helped maintain an overall narrative and tension as to what individual outcomes would be over the course of the book. Also, the book itself is divided into a few different sections, the results of which nicely mirror across communication streams.

I took a gamble on this book and I am definitely glad it paid off. Although I definitely had some issues, I truly enjoyed getting inside the heads of Lydia, Cassie, and Emily and I was glad that each of them ended up in a good place at the book’s conclusion. After doing some research online, it looks as though Jaclyn Moriarty has written a couple of other stand-alone books set in the same two schools, also written as epistolary novels. It may take a while, but it’s likely I’ll get around to reading the rest of them at some point.

Disclosure – library

Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden

This groundbreaking book is the story of two teenage girls whose friendship blossoms into love and who, despite pressures from family and school that threaten their relationship, promise to be true to each other and their feelings. This book is so truthful and honest, it has been banned from many school libraries and even publicly burned in Kansas City.
Of the author and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, “Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves.”


First published in 1982, this book has the distinction of being the first YA book published in the U.S. to feature a gay couple that has a happy ending. It’s probably more appropriate to say the ending is bittersweet, considering not everyone walks away unscathed from what occurs, but everyone’s still alive, no one “got cured” or “went back” to being straight, and the ending is still really hopeful and very much appreciated.

To start off, Liza and Annie’s relationship is one of the sweetest, most romantic ones I’ve ever read. These two are pretty much the classic example of “love at first sight” – both meet one day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bond over impromptu reenactments of knights performing chivalrous acts, and exchange phone numbers and addresses at the end of the day. Suddenly, both of them are spending the majority of their time together, exploring New York and its environs and finding beauty in everything around them until events come to a turn and Liza, the protagonist of the story, comes to the realization that she is in love with Annie. Me being extremely picky about textual romances, I would have preferred a bit less “love at first sight” and a bit more getting to know each other before romantic attraction sets in, but I’m honestly not going to complain all that much. The joy Liza and Annie experience together and in each other is so palpable and beautiful to read; it’s teenage love without feeling hackneyed at all. And that’s a damn impressive accomplishment.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised, but also pleased that the book addressed not only Liza and Annie’s romantic attraction for each other, but also their sexual attraction, and how Liza deals with the two forms differs drastically. The former’s easier – with a little effort, it’s not too strange to accept the premise that love is love, no matter who it’s felt by or directed towards. The latter on the other hand is harder for Liza in particular to come to grips with that this is something she truly wants, and that she wants it *a lot*. And she and Annie do end up having (non-descriptive) sex, which made me happy. In addition, I really liked how Liza struggled with calling herself gay and how it was just easier to think about the fact that she loved Annie rather than what it possibly might mean. For her, “gay” is too limiting and doesn’t really describe for her what she feels. It isn’t that she likes girls in general, it’s that she likes Annie. She objectively recognizes that “gay” might be the best description and she could theoretically fall in love with other girls later on, but the term still carries too much historical and cultural baggage for her to feel truly comfortable aligning herself with it.

And of course, it couldn’t be all happiness and rainbows because we have the strict, image-conscious, authoritarian principle of Liza’s private school Mrs. Poindexter and her lackey, the fluttery, extremely religious Mrs. Baxter who have gotten on Liza’s case before and get on her case in the end when Mrs. Baxter catches them in a somewhat compromising situation. It was actually really hard to read the first half of the book because it is really beautiful and touching and you know they’re going to get caught and there’s going to be hell to pay. And even the fact that this is set in the eighties doesn’t help with the ensuing rage and pain I felt while reading it because neither homophobia nor heterosexism are dead in the slightest, especially in schools. And the aftermath that follows them getting found out drives an almost impenetrable wedge between Annie, especially because the specifics of what they did cost two of Liza’s teachers their jobs and Liza can’t help but connect her and Annie’s love to that result.

I’m not sure if I conveyed this well or not, but what I’m essentially trying to say is that Annie On My Mind made me feel all of the emotions, and for that, I loved it. It’s such a wonderful love story and a really important one to boot. If you’re looking for a good YA book centered on a F/F couple, as wellas one that’s historically important in the canon of queer YA literature, this book is it.

Disclosure – library

Black Ships by Jo Graham

In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, she is destined to counsel kings.

When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she was born for and a most perilous adventure – to join the remnant of her mother’s people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gate of the Underworld to lead him to his destiny.

In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.

Just as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon breathed new life into Arthurian legend, BLACK SHIPS evokes the world of ancient Greece with beautiful, haunting prose, extraordinary imagination, and a profoundly moving story.

Going into this book, I wasn’t aware that this was a retelling of the Aneid, told from the viewpoint of the Sybil who accompanied Aeneus on his journey. Once I realized this, I was intrigued, having only just read the Aneid two years ago. For a number of reasons though, the book never managed to truly click with me. On the plus side, this is an ambitious, detailed retelling of the Aeneid and the amount of research the author put into making this book shows. Each location has its own identity and character, be it in the religion, social customs, or government. In terms of creating a sense of place and history, Jo Graham definitely succeeds.

My main problem was with Gull herself. After losing almost all mobility in one of her feet due to an accident, her mother gives her over to the current Pythia to serve as an acolyte and eventually take over as priestess. Quite early on, Gull swears that she will forsake anything to do with life (since Pythia’s realm is that of death) and won’t take any lover (even though she’s allowed to, it’s only marriage that’s forbidden). Unfortunately, from a narrative perspective it meant that she felt so removed and withdrawn to the point that she almost didn’t feel human. I never really understood why she felt she needed to do this, which made me less than sympathetic towards her when she was angsting over whether to sleep with Xandros. It was entirely her choice to take her vows to the extreme and I didn’t get why she even did that in the first place. I know that Gull’s struggle in the book is to balance her affinity and devotion to the Lady of Death with her own humanity and desire to live amongst people and love them, but I never cared. It was almost as though she was so ensconsed in her role as Pythia that whenever she acted more human, it rang false.

Overall, there was a definite lack of urgency from Gull’s POV. In writing this, I’m trying to decide whether Gull’s story was even necessary when the true story is about Aenaeus and it’s through her eyes that we see Aeneus’ journey, his duty to his people, his fear of the fate of his people, and growing to be the ruler his people need him to be now rather than the ones of the past. Gull does have her own story, sort of, what with falling in love with Xandros and searching for the answer of how to save the cities from the dark age that’s falling over them due to the curse from Agamemnon’s blasphemy. However, those concerns always feel ancillary to Aeneus’ story and those struggles never gave me a real sense of who she was as a person. Again, she was far too removed for me to care about her.

The last problem I have is of a different nature and is related more to the Aeneid than the others. In Virgil’s version, Aeneus and his people reside in Carthage for a number of months where he falls in love with Queen Dido, who asks him to be her consort. He refuses and leaves, and Dido commits suicide. When I read the Aeneid in my freshman humanities class, we talked about how Dido was a stand-in for Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of Egypt before the Romans conquered the country and added it to the empire, and as such, Dido resembled the typical Roman depiction of Cleopatra as a sexual, unnaturally powerful woman who would bring men to their ruin. In Black Ships, Aeneus and his people travel to Egypt (since Carthage didn’t actually exist at the time of the fall of Troy) and Aeneus gets into a relationship with Bastemon, one of Pharaoh’s sisters who acts as his voice when he’s unavailable. I was disappointed that Bastemon’s portrayal remained similar to Dido’s – her sexuality and emotions are demonstrated as dangerous and out of control and her character was coded as an enemy to be subjugated for daring to ensnare and steal Aeneus from his people.

I had high hopes for Black Ships largely due to reading a number of good things about Jo Graham’s writing and because ancient Greek history and mythology is fun to read about. The book definitely didn’t live up to my expectations and I’m now thinking twice as to whether I’ll eventually read her other books.

Disclosure – bought

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Karen Lord’s debut novel is an intricately woven tale of adventure, magic, and the power of the human spirit. Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.

Bursting with humor and rich in fantastic detail, Redemption in Indigo is a clever, contemporary fairy tale that introduces readers to a dynamic new voice in Caribbean literature. Lord’s world of spider tricksters and indigo immortals is inspired in part by a Senegalese folk tale—but Paama’s adventures are fresh, surprising, and utterly original.

spoilers, sorta, about the structure of the ending

This book is smarter than me. Or it might be more accurate to say that the author is smarter than me. Probably both statements are true. I say this because this story is incredibly self-aware and consistently makes a point of showing off its structure, the types of characters and tropes it contains, the style in which it’s being told , and the overall “point” of the story being told in the first place. For example, nearing the end of the story I was thinking, “Ho hum, nice tale, but not a whole lot of compelling characters.” A couple of pages later, the omniscient narrator pops into say, “Duh, have you been paying attention to the type of story I’m telling here? It’s not the characters’ job to please you, nor is it mine!” It similarly castigates those readers (and I’m one of them) that typically groan at stories having obvious morals or lessons one’s supposed to learn at the end. And of course, the narrator says, “I told you in the beginning what the entire story was going to be about! Stop complaining!”

And what is the story about? Choices mostly, and chaos and human agency and how even with the presence of supernatural beings like the djombi, it isn’t entirely correct to blame them for all the bad things that happen, nor are they entirely responsible for saving human lives and pushing events in a direction they’re supposed to go because human choice will more often than not override attempts to have things go differently.

It’s funny, normally I would be really annoyed at a story told like this in which the narration explicitly explains what roles the characters in the story fulfill, what their motives are, and what the entire story is even about. However, the author tells the story in such a way that all of these asides and explanations are part and parcel of the story itself; it’s like a story typically told orally translated into a written version. Additionally, there are parts of the story in which readers is given the answer, but in a vague, roundabout manner, so they still have to do some fancy footwork to figure out what exactly has happened and what implications it will have the for the rest of the story. And I should say right now that the writing is so excellent – every single word feels carefully chosen and the story is told concisely without losing any detail, texture or depth. I am very envious of Karen Lord’s skill right now.

And yeah, in writing all of this, I haven’t said any thing about Paama and the journey she goes on, the chaos stick, and the various djombi sticking their noses into human affairs. This isn’t to say they aren’t integral to the story, but rather than being one of the most important parts, they share equal footing with all the rest of the components that make up this story. It’s one of those rare cases where every story is perfectly balanced. If you love meta in your stories and some seriously competent, assured writing, this book is perfect.

Disclosure – library

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Jack Holloway works alone, for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on planet, 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack is content as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. As for his past, that’s not up for discussion. 

Then, in the wake of an accidental cliff collapse, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels, to which he manages to lay legal claim just as ZaraCorp is cancelling their contract with him for his part in causing the collapse. Briefly in the catbird seat, legally speaking, Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth. 

But there’s another wrinkle to ZaraCorp’s relationship with the planet Zarathustra. Their entire legal right to exploit the verdant Earth-like planet, the basis of the wealth they derive from extracting its resources, is based on being able to certify to the authorities on Earth that Zarathustra is home to no sentient species. 

Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he begins to suspect that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is very flimsy indeed…and that ZaraCorp may stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.

To start off with the explanation people may or may not know – this is a reboot of the 1962 novel Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper, which was nominated for the Hugo Award in 1963. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say how this book matches up with its predecessor, and so am taking it purely on its own merit. This was a fun, easy book to read. Which feels a little strange to say, given all the lawyer talk that had me slow down and take the time to unravel what it all meant for the future of the characters and the fuzzys. Actually, the thing that surprised me most about this book was how much the story depended on legal proceedings. The story reads in a particularly cinematic fashion, and as such, I expected it to end up looking more like an action movie. It still does in a number of ways, but the fact that the central conflict hinges on whether the fuzzys are sentient beings, the ruling of which will affect Zara XXXIII’s legal status, gives the story a very different flavor than what I originally expected. It also casts Jack Holloway’s character in a different light than what one would expect.

Holloway is a smooth-talking, selfish ex-lawyer turned surveyor who gets off on making everyone around him hate his guts. His prime interest is in looking out for himself, even when he’s outwardly doing good deeds. Having recently become a muti-billionaire after the discovery of a vast deposit of sunstones, Holloway has a huge stake in denying the fuzzys’ sentience because otherwise all mining stops and ZaraCorp leave the planet. However, he becomes the fuzzys’ main spokesperson, as well as their ideal of what a “good man” is. It’s really cool to see how his code of ethics both changes and remains the same over the course of story – he still holds his interests above everyone else’s but that also means he holds his pride and sense of right and wrong over everyone else’s as well, which puts him into a unique position to advocate for and defend the fuzzys’ sentience. I will say that I never actually *liked* Holloway, or any of the other characters, really. This was definitely a book that I read for the plot.

It probably says something about nostalgia and certain cultural markers standing the test of time that this particular sixties, sci-fi version of an alien plant colonized by Earth felt very endearing in its familiarity. There’s your all-powerful corporation, dangerous dinosaur-predators, spacecraft, skimmers, various people in their necessary positions to colonize planets, and other typical tropes and trappings. From what I’ve read elsewhere, this story has been updated to reflect more modern arguments concerning the definition of sentience, which is a really cool idea. All things considered, if I had read Little Fuzzy in addition to Fuzzy Nation, I’d most likely pick the latter as my favorite because it retains all of the things that give old sci-fi it’s appeal while being written like a novel from present times.

All in all, this is a fun novel to read. Even with the question of what is sentience, it’s not exactly deep reading, but it’s fast, entertaining, and has a huge amount of delicious tension. Good stuff.

Disclosure – library

Discount Armageddon by Seanan McGuire (InCryptid Series #1)

Ghoulies. Ghosties. Long-legged beasties. Things that go bump in the night… The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity-and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and is spending a year in Manhattan while she pursues her career in professional ballroom dance. Sounds pretty simple, right? It would be, if it weren’t for the talking mice, the telepathic mathematicians, the asbestos supermodels, and the trained monster-hunter sent by the Price family’s old enemies, the Covenant of St. George. When a Price girl meets a Covenant boy, high stakes, high heels, and a lot of collateral damage are almost guaranteed. To complicate matters further, local cryptids are disappearing, strange lizard-men are appearing in the sewers, and someone’s spreading rumors about a dragon sleeping underneath the city…


Seanan McGuire is one of those authors I wish I could fall in love with every single book they write. She has imagination. Do you know how many authors there are who have the ability to write crazy, unique stories that don’t look like anything else currently being written? Not many. But her books have been extremely hit-or-miss for me. I couldn’t get behind Rosemary and Rue, I fell in love with Feed (and to a lesser extent Deadline) which she wrote as Mira Grant, and I’m feeling mixed when it comes to Discount Armageddon. As seems to be the case when I have problems with books, I can’t stop focusing on what I *want* the book to be versus what is actually is.

The first thing was that I found the humor and snarkiness to be overwhelming to the point that it was no longer amusing and more annoying than anything else. Characters being snarky is sort of a standard thing in Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant books, and for the latter, the snark worked a lot better for me because it was in contrast with the all-too serious situation of a world overrun with zombies and a bunch of bloggers solving a mystery and chasing a conspiracy theory. I could easily have seen the story and the world in this book being written in a more serious manner than it was. You have your Cryptids who are starting to live amongst and coexist with humans more and more these days, there’s the Covenant of St. George who’s sole purpose is to eradicate all Cryptids whether they’re a threat or not, a family descended from members who left the Covenant to devote their lives researching the variety of Cryptid species, protecting the harmless ones, and keeping in control the more problematic one, and a bitter, raging feud between said Covenant and family. I would have preferred for this world to be written in a less comedic manner, particularly with regards to the main storyline. I couldn’t fully get behind the whole “there’s a dragon under New York City” plot and the ending was plain weird. The fact that the dragon princesses are humanoid and the male dragons aren’t and yet they mate with each other and have children… this is speculative fiction, and I could not buy this. I just couldn’t.

Also unfortunately, Seanan McGuire’s info-dumping does not look like it’s going away anytime soon. I was able to deal and not mind too much while reading, but it was frustrating. Granted, I’m not a writer and I’m honestly not sure what would have been a better way to disseminate all the information that needed to be told, but… yeah.

Another problem is that the protagonists in the author’s various books tend to have similar, edgy voices, though there is enough difference between them that it’s not a huge problem. I did like reading about Verity; she definitely has a fascinating life to say the least, what with being a Cryptid protector/ballroom dancer by day and a cocktail waitress by night. And I really liked reading about her family history and how they left the Covenant and have since been involved in the family business of cryptid protection/control/research. I did find it somewhat strange that their study is “cryptozoology” but some of the cryptids have human-levels of sentience, like Sarah, who’s Verity’s cousin. “Cryptozoology” sounds like it should be more insulting when implied to those types of cryptids. But that’s just me. The Aeslin mice were absolutely adorable in that schaedenfreude way where I’m glad they’re not interfering with my life but I’m perfectly happy to watch them get in the way of Verity’s with their daily religious ceremonies and continuous cheering of “HAIL”.

The budding relationship between Verity and Dominic was alright – it was enjoyable reading about Verity knocking him down a couple of pegs and him being all, “WTF this girl is my enemy, what is she doing now, why is she so goddamned infuriating, why does she keep kissing me, gaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh.” I would have appreciated a bit more backstory since right now he seems like he’s just a random Covenant dude, but there’ll probably be more development down the line.

Discount Armageddon does possess a number of strengths, including an original premise, solid and imaginative world-building, consciencious attention to detail, a pretty sweet heroine, and Aeslin mice. However, weaknesses include an overload of snark, an overly lighthearted tone, and plot I wasn’t really able to invest in. Again, I really wish this book had worked better for me than it did. Even so, I will probably keep an eye out for the second book, just to see what’s going on in the next story.

Disclosure – library

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

A moving and haunting novel for readers of The Book Thief

Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life—until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?

This powerful tale of heartbreak and hope is sure to haunt readers long after they finish the last page.

While reading this book, I frequently felt conflicted over the author’s writing and the format she used to tell the story. Athough it felt dissatisfying, I also understood why she made the choices she did. An example – for the majority of the book, I couldn’t understand why the author included multiple flashbacks to Lina’s life before deportation rather than simply start the book in that time and then show the political situation getting progressively worse until her father is arrested and she and her mother and brother are deported. Then right near the book’s ending, the inclusion of the flashbacks started to make more sense and the revelation does ultimately connect back to the very beginning of the story. So I essentially spent a majority of my time disliking the flashbacks when they actually did serve a purpose… Another thing I didn’t like was the shortness of the chapters; there are 85 chapters and an epilogue in a 338-page book. At the same time, I absolutely sped right through this book in a way I haven’t for a long time this year, so I guess they weren’t as bothersome as I kept thinking they were. I don’t know. The short length gave the events contained in each chapter an episodic feeling, which might have been a very intentional choice to highlight what happens to Lina in that manner. In which case I respect the choice, but would have personally preferred longer chapters and a greater confluence of events. Also, I’m not sure how I feel about the epilogue – does this mean that the entire story was supposed to have been written by Lina after her imprisonment? Because there’s no way I would have read it like that without the epilogue implying that’s what it is, which means I’m not happy with how that was handled.

In terms the story itself, it was fascinating from a historical perspective. The author focuses on something I have not seen written about in either in fiction or nonfiction –  the deportation, imprisonment, and murder of millions of Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Finns, and other Eastern European peoples. (Maybe in some cases it was combined with the mass deportation of Russians to become a general phenomenon?) Even so, the focus wasn’t so much on the historical, political situation that resulted in this atrocity, but on the human stories and experiences of living through, surviving, and dying in this new world. Almost all of the characters were painted in a sympathetic light, even the cranky bald man who won’t stop talking about how they’re all about to die. Even though the main character is Lina, I’d say that the most impressive character of them all is her mother for keeping the family together as long as possible and doing whatever it takes to make sure Lina and Jonas survive. It’s an emotionally charged story, and in that respect it is beautifully told.

However, given that Lina and all these other people are deported and imprisoned for political reasons, the context in which her story takes place is strangely apolitical. She knows that it’s mostly the wealthy, educated, and those who have international connections that are being targeted, the flashbacks show Lina’s parents discussing and worrying about Stalin’s invasion, and sometimes people talk about Germany and World War Two if they hear any news about it. And yet, none if it is really grounded. Like, if I hadn’t known anything about Stalinist Russian and his perpetration of communism, him invading Lithuania and the other Baltic countries wouldn’t have made sense, nor would the deportations. The way the author wrote this story, it’s as though there’s this lack of awareness of why any of this is happening. Or at least that’s how I read it. Maybe this is because I like seeing how big, national actions are interconnected to the individuals who are the ones who suffer as a result of those actions.

Meh. I feel like I’m being overly picky here because I did enjoy reading this book and it was almost impossible for me to put down because I kept going through chapter after chapter, just to make sure that everyone was still surviving. Lina and everone else’s lack of knowledge was used beautifully – it heightened the tension because no one knew what to expect, where they’re being taken to now, or what new horrors were about to happen. And in terms of the subject matter, it’s an important book about  little-known or publicized brutal historical times. There were parts I was definitely drawn to, but the overall work didn’t click with me.

Disclosure – library