Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing story about a young girl, her family and her neighbors being forced from their home in Lithuania and imprisoned in a brutal Siberian encampment under Stalin’s rule. As one would expect, this wartime story is horribly sad and disturbing. However, there are moments in the imprisoned people’s lives where they remind one another that they are indeed compassionate human beings who are capable of empowering themselves and one another by sharing happy and peaceful memories. These moments better enable them to survive–spiritually and physically. On one occasion the “prisoners” free themselves from several months of endless burden and physical wear with the use of what can be called, collective memory. They secretly gather on Christmas Eve and recreate a scene that resembles a traditional Lithuanian Christmas dinner celebration—Kucios. During this commemoration they have only the small stolen rations of stale food from the farming camp that they are temporarily enslaved at. Yet, with these very limited means the group manages to capture the spirit of the holiday celebration, perhaps in a more powerful manner than any Christmas past.
Lina, the protagonist of the story, is a gifted artist and seizes every opportunity to capture, on bark or stolen paper, such moments of beauty. She also uses her artistic abilities to record the destruction and obscenities she has witnessed and experienced. Lina draws with an understanding that her depictions are recorded evidence as well as an act of defiance and freedom of expression. Moreover, she holds onto the hope that her drawings are a conduit through which her separated family can communicate and reunite. The characters in this story, and their small amount of personal belongings, are up-heaved and moved from place to place further away from their homeland and from the peaceful lives they once knew. Lina’s story, and her art, balances a wanting of what once was, with a need to move forward.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (especially for those moments of beauty amidst despair)
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (which also emphasizes the survival of people’s traditions and culture)
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink (another story that presents complex individuals who are capable of doing good and of creating harm)
A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas
Eliza Spooner and her two children struggle to run their small Kansas farm after Will joins the Union Army. Eliza and her friends meet once a month to quilt and support each other, and Eliza sends Will a special down-filled quilt for Christmas. Widowed Missouri Ann and her little girl move in, and an escaped slave needs a safe place to stay. Finally, the Christmas quilt is brought home after the war in a most unexpected way. A quick read, this charming, heartwarming novel about life on the homefront during and right after the Civil War is loosely connected with The Persian Pickle Club.
Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good, by Jan Karon
It’s been nine years since there’s been a new book by Jan Karon set in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina, but I think it’s been worth the wait. Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, first appeared in At Home in Mitford in 1994. The two most recent books featuring Father Tim and his wife Cynthia have been set in Mississippi and Ireland. Cynthia is still writing and illustrating children’s books, and Father Tim is struggling with how to find meaning in retirement. When he is asked to preach again at the Episcopal church in Mitford, it’s a tough decision. Adopted son Dooley is in college and has given a friendship ring to Lace. Dooley’s younger brother Sammy lives next door, and Tim wonders how he can reach out to the troubled teen. An unexpected opportunity to volunteer at the local bookstore one or two days per week while the pregnant owner is on bed rest gives Tim the chance to re-connect with his friends and neighbors as Christmas approaches. All of Mitford’s quirky characters make an appearance, with plenty of laughter and some tears in this heartwarming novel.
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Breq is a soldier, visiting the icy world of Nilt, in search of an unscannable weapon to help in her quest of revenge against the leader of the Radch. Breq is also Justice of Toren, a spaceship that is two thousand years old, and was most recently a troop carrier in orbit around the planet of Shis’urna. In debut novelist Leckie’s universe, a starship is run by an artificial intelligence, and the same AI also has dozens of soldiers, in formerly human bodies known as ancillaries. Breq was 19 Eck. On Nilt, Breq rescues and treats the unconscious Seivarden Vendaii, a former officer on Justice of Toren who has outlived all her relatives and is addicted to kef. Breq and Seivarden, who doesn’t recognize her, have adventures while the reader learns their stories. Breq is remembering something that happened in a temple on Shis’urna, and a later incident on the starship involving a favorite officer, Lieutenant Awn. The conquering Radch are inclusive of different religions, but intolerant of civil unrest. To make things more confusing, the Radch, who have spread through many galaxies, have no gender in their language so everyone is referred to as she or her. A brilliantly imaginative book that has swept the major science fiction/fantasy awards, this book is also challenging and can be confusing. Several days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about it, and just re-read the first chapter. This book was published a year ago, and the sequel, Ancillary Sword, has recently become available. I’m looking forward to seeing where Leckie’s creativity will take Breq in Ancillary Sword, and the final, not-yet-published book. Suggested for fans of C. J. Cherryh, John Scalzi, and Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang.
How to Be a Victorian: a Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman
A very readable, often entertaining look at daily life in England in Victorian times. Ruth Goodman, a historian, has spent considerable time immersed in Victorian life for British television series, including Victorian Farm. Goodman’s experiences provide added interest, although there were things she didn’t experience, such as the London smog. Several families are described at different points in the Victorian era, which lasted 63 years, and the reader learns about their typical diets, working and living conditions, and even different modes of transportation. The hardest part to read is about the lives of children, including the lack of modern medicine and knowledge of nutrition, opium tonics for babies and long hours of work for children as young as six. Conditions and education for children did improve over time, and the section on education is quite interesting. The format, taking people through a typical day from dawn to bedtime, works well. On a chilly day like today, I’m happy to live with central heating and hot running water, the things Goodman missed most while re-enacting Victorian life, but she does succeed in making the idea of a visit to the Victorian era sound appealing.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
Auri is waiting for Kvothe, musician and university student, who is the narrator of Rothfuss’ acclaimed, lengthy fantasy novels, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear. Auri’s book is a 176 page novella, has only one character and a simple plot, and yet the reader worries about her and rejoices in her small triumphs. Once a student at the University, which teaches magic and alchemy, she now lives beneath the school, in abandoned rooms and passages called the Underthing. Auri strives to set things to rights in the Underthing, and some of her alchemy skills come in handy, such as when she finds a leaky pipe. Auri regularly discovers new objects and passages, keeps the rooms tidy, and practices a placement art similar to feng shui, but her work is hampered by her obsessive compulsive disorder. Auri is searching for the right gift for Kvothe’s visit in a week’s time, and care for herself takes second place. Well worth reading, and re-reading; a lovely gift for Rothfuss’ many fans.
Lives in Ruins : Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson
This is an engaging look at the lives of archaeologists, a combination of armchair travel, popular science, and history. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially the author’s travels to visit archaeological sites and interview archaeologists in the Caribbean, Peru, a tiny island in the eastern Mediterranean, South Dakota, Fishkill and Fort Drum in New York, and the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. The author audits classes, goes to field school before volunteering at a dig site, attends conferences, and visits museums. Other than the weather and working conditions, it sounds like fun. As a group, archaeologists are highly educated, passionate about their work, and grossly underpaid, if they’re even employed. They eat sandwiches, swat mosquitoes, work under hot sun or in the rain, often with a developer’s bulldozer looming, drive old vehicles, and tell great stories and drink beer at the end of a long day.
The reader learns about the discovery of an unknown Revolutionary War cemetery in New York, and how a civilian archaeologist working for the Department of Defense is helping soldiers learn to protect sites of cultural and historical importance with decks of playing cards. Many sites have been lost to development, while others are waiting for funding, such as the search for explorer James Cook’s Endeavour in the Newport harbor. This is a November Library Reads pick.