Quarterly Reading Challenge #5 (Books 1-5)

As some may know, I participated in the YA Book Club‘s May through March quarterly reading challenge. For anyone unfamiliar with these challenges, the GoodReads group issues a different challenge with new requirements for the duration of three months. Within those three months, members endeavor to read at least 10 young adult books.

In this post, I will cover the first five books and discuss the second half tomorrow. (Unless the tide sweeps me out into the Sea of Neglected Work, that is. In which case: books 6-10 will have a post sometime later in the week.) Without further ado:

1) A book  nominated for or won the William C. Morris award.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

From books to film–memoirs, biographies, documentaries, and fiction alike–portrayals of Holocaust horrors are widely known. But how much does the public know about Stalin’s deportee victims? (How many of us are even aware?) It is certainly less talked about.

Sepetys brings to light a part of WWII that is not often discussed, and I must say: the hype is not for nothing. The story itself is fiction, however the groundwork it is built upon originates from research and first-hand accounts.

Between Shades of Gray is Lina Vilkas’ story, a 15 year old Lithuanian removed, per Stalin’s rule, from all that she knows. Transported into a much harsher reality, the book is split into three parts as each details Lina’s journey and experiences in first-person narrative. Through art and words, Lina documents alarming acts of cruelty, the anguish, that she and others are forced to endure and bear witness to.

It was hard to imagine that war raged somewhere in Europe. We had a war of our own, waiting for the NKVD to choose the next victim, to throw us in the next hole. They enjoyed hitting and kicking us in the fields. One morning, they caught an old man eating a beet. A guard ripped out his front teeth with pliers. They made us watch.

As a character, I admire Lina’s will to stay strong — despite the book’s bleak atmosphere, I find this encouraging. Intertwined with the present are flashbacks of her previous life — snippets of what is or was dear to her. Every memory fragment is like a puzzle piece, each connecting and fitting together. One by one, as her memories are put together to formulate a history, we see what Lina has lost and learn why her family was deported.

Chapters are brief yet powerful and addictive. Difficult to put down, the writing  hooked me in with its simple and refined quality that flows so well, but beware: you may want to keep tissue on standby.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

2) A a newly released book published in March, April or May of 2012.

Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser

This is a book I wish I’d had the time to review when thoughts were fresh. Read in early March, the emotional reaction I initially felt has since faded but the story has not. (I warn you: this is also difficult for me to write without becoming lengthy.)

Pieces of Us alternates between  four character perspectives: sisters Katie and Julie, and brothers Alex and Kyle. As events take place, we see each character’s view and how poor timing, miscommunication (or simply a lack thereof), and misunderstandings damage relationships. It is unfortunate, has power to greatly devastate, and it happens in real life to all of us at varying degrees. Each character, although driven by their unique needs, wants to discretely pocket their problems and keep the pain internal.

I would be lying if I said I loved these characters, because I didn’t. Even like is a strong word. My sympathy rose, crashed, and danced between the four, but I think this is one of Gelbwasser’s strengths. During times when I loathed Julie–absolutely despised her as an ugliness grew and swallowed her most endearing qualities– Gelbwasser gives us a wealth of insight. Yes, I was angry at Julie, but I understood the motivations behind her actions.

I cannot, however, say the same for Alex. Alex, Katie’s “summer boyfriend,” goes through one-night stands quicker than I can drink a pot of coffee. He gets an A+ in demeaning girls and showing nothing but complete disrespect toward women. To him, every hook-up girl is a “slut” or “skank,” except Katie. Katie is different, but does he feel the same when Katie’s secret is grossly smeared for everyone to look and prod at? Regardless of his reaction, he could not garner much of my understanding.

My chief complaint not only concerns his offensive treatment of women, but his failure to recognize himself as promiscuous. How is he better than the girls he sleeps with? What separates him besides gender? By societal standards, it seems, women–more often than men–are the dirty, despicable ones. This is an awfully unfair and unjust judgement.

Even more bothersome are reviewers who victim-blame Katie: it is her fault; she asked for it. People call her a slut and say “do not feel sorry for her” and so on. I feel these people are gravely ignorant while others are simply uncomfortable reading about sex. It is important to know and understand that rape and sexual coercion are not one in the same as sexual promiscuity. Gelbwasser does not explore the trauma rape victims undergo, and I still struggle in wondering if Gelbwasser should have. I think touching on deeper layers of Katie’s wounds would give these baffled readers a clearer understanding (and an educational moment). At the same time, sexual assault–although a major aspect– is not intended as the book’s focus.

To note: many feel this book is (too) graphic. I, however, disagree. I say it again: this notion seems to come from those who are uncomfortable reading or talking about sex. By my standards, for Pieces of Us to be “graphic,” then Gelbwasser would have to delve into detail. I would happily provide an excerpt if I had the book on hand, but I unfortunately don’t. There is rape, coercion, and yes: casual and ‘meaningful/first-time’ sex. Gelbwasser provides enough information for the reader to understand and have a sense of what is occurring. If that sounds graphic to you, or if the word “SEX” paints your face crimson, your literary taste may find it rotten.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

3) A book set with a cover that has something botanical.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd

This book encouraged me to write one of my most rant-inspired reviews thus far. If anything, I found it therapeutic.

When I finished page 309, I slapped the book shut and shot toward my car. Where did I go? The nearest library drop-box.

Goodbye, The Vast Fields of Ordinary — you had no plot and a protagonist brilliant in idiocy.

As I mention near the end of my “review,” this story–from what little I gather (therefore heavy in guesswork)–is about the summer after high school graduation just before heading off to college. For most, those summers that sit between the end of your former life and a new stage of opportunities feels different from others. It’s a blend of excitement and bittersweet moments. Things change, people change — heck, people disperse! But I have to ask: why did Burd write The Vast Fields of Ordinary? What did he hope to accomplish by it? Am I missing an important thematic element? I can’t figure it out, as the entire book is lost in unsettled conflicts and flat characters that display little realistic qualities.

For some, this is a story about bullying. Others, it appears, think it’s a story about family issues. Both (bullying and family conflict) play roles in Dade’s life, but they hardly strike as leading factors. What I feel Nick Burd fails to accomplish is character development and, well, a plot. I won’t dare rehash my rant here, but the link is there for anyone curious enough to venture forth with a click.

My rating: 2/5 stars.

4) A book whose title starts with one of the letters of the word SPRING.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Is it okay to hate a dead kid? Even if you loved him once? Even if he was my best friend? Is it okay to hate him for being dead?

Yes, Vera, it is, because I hate Charlie, too. (But unlike Vera, I do not feel compelled to forgive him.)

By the time I read through Please Ignore Vera Dietz I had to question: why the hype? Why is this book popular and, by the large, so well received? If I am going to speak honestly, I have to say that I would rather not recap this book at all. The only emotion King roused in me was the strongest, most long-lasting heat-wave of anger I’ve experienced by reading a book, and it was all directed at Charlie.

To top it lightly, Charlie betrayed and bullied his best friend–from feeding the entire school a Dietz family secret to chucking beer cans in her direction, and not to mention tossing a pile of some literal nasty onto her head. Charlie was cruel at every chance he got, sullied everything that was sacred in their friendship, and offered no apologies. I won’t deny it: if I were Vera, I’d cry. That is some cruel punishment from your childhood BFF.

The book begins at Charlie’s funeral, however — he died before they two could mend their shattered friendship. Throughout, “a word from the dead kid” appears as Charlie talks about his decisions, and of Vera, but he cannot explain his betrayal. Paraphrased, and if memory serves me right, his reasoning stands: “So why did I betray Vera? I don’t know.” Wow, how enlightening.

Charlie loved Vera but shunned her away out of fear, believing she is levels above him in a world of class. I can respect Vera’s character: she loses her best friend twice–a lost friendship that can never be restored,  and despite the many ways in which Charlie trampled over her, she holds her head up. But can she find it in her to forgive Charlie? (Because I cannot and will not.) Aside from her secret fancy of alcohol binging, Vera displays humbling traits in spite of all that has occurred.

And yet: just as I don’t have it in me to forgive Charlie’s actions, I feel nothing toward Vera. Nothing. Not even the slightest drop of sympathy. Charlie treated her cruelly, and although she suffers for it, I feel that Ms. Dietz is underdeveloped. I fully acknowledged Vera’s presence in the book, but I didn’t connect and continued reading as if she were a nagging part of the background.  To some extent, it was an odd reading experience. Even more so, it was simply frustrating.

My rating: 2/5 stars.

5) A book written by an Australian author.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

How do I review such a treasure as The Book Thief? I can’t. It’s like digging into a yummy slice of cheesecake: every part is so damn good that I don’t know where to begin.

This was a library check-out, but rest assured it has a reserved spot on my shelf. Oh, it will be bought.

Death is the brilliant narrator, and just as he relates the story of Liesel Meminger’s life on Himmel Street with a grace of words–an expressive blend of compassion and humor–I enjoyed learning about Death himself. For a being with a circular pulse, I found it wondrously easy to forget that he isn’t human. Death does not control who dies and who lives; it is simply his job to collect the souls of stiff bodies. Like many people, he also speaks to God, and–as many can attest–the conversation is one-sided for him as well. He is sympathetic toward mankind, burdened by the despair war brings with it, and “haunted by humans.” Contrary to his nature, Death is tenderly comical and human.

God.
I always say that name when I think of it.
God.
Twice, I speak it.
I say His name in a futile attempt to understand. “But it’s not your job to understand.” That’s me who answers. God never says anything. You think you’re the only one he never answers? “Your job is to…” and I stop listening to me, because to put it bluntly, I tire of me.

In effect, Death delivers Liesel’s story in splendid charm, as all fortunes and heartbreaks bestowed by Himmel Street are felt.

Zusak does something interesting, in fact: he lets Death spoil the ending. Before a tragic event occurs in the book, Death gives a warning. I felt devastated to learn that something awful happens to one of my most beloved characters in The Book Thief. The courtesy heads up impaled my chest with a sharp sense of the impending, sad fate that awaited. In a way, I came to love characters all the more by having this slice of information. I loved them and had my heart smashed because of it.

In all, I am most fond of the relationship between Liesel and her foster father, Hans. A kind, loving man, the sentimental moments he shares with Liesel found a nice little spot in my nub of a heart and still make me smile.  At night, Hans teaches Liesel how to read and write as the two work through book after book. He is patient and soft-spoken–qualities that I think make Hans a fantastic character to adore. Even his foul-mouthed wife, Rosa, grew on me. Rosa, always shouting a crude Saukerl! and bickering, does indeed have a large heart. And Rudy, oh Rudy. He is a sweet boy.

The Book Thief takes place in Nazi Germany, and I know how many people (and as awful as this sounds) have grown tired of these stories. Not another WWII sob story, please. Not again. Not today. Zusak, however, does not give us a story about the horrors of Hitler’s reign, and he does not seek sympathy for his characters. Yes: there is a Jew, Hans and Rosa take risks to protect one, and Liesel manifests a friendship with him. These characters and all that happens in their lives are presented for who and what they are and nothing more. With that, and Death’s narration, I grew to care for them and became mesmerized by this coming-of-age story.

She was a girl.
In Nazi Germany.
How fitting that she was discovering the power of words.

My rating: 5/5 stars.

To see books 6-10, click here.

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One thought on “Quarterly Reading Challenge #5 (Books 1-5)

  1. Pingback: Quarterly Reading Challenge #5 (Books 6-10) | midnight coffee monster

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