Wolf by Wolf – by Ryan Graudin

“Her self-reflection was no reflection at all. It was a shattered mirror. Something she had to piece together, over and over again. Memory by memory. Loss by loss. Wolf by wolf.”

wolf by wolf

Synopsis from GoodreadsThe year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s ball. Yael, who escaped from a death camp, has one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female victor, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin’s brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move. But as Yael begins to get closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?

Feelings: Wow. Wow. Wow. This book was different from how I expected it to be. It wasn’t until I’d completely finished the book that I really understood it. I understood that it’s all about identity – how we shape our lives and our outlooks, and how we see others around us. Yael, as a skinshifter, had even forgotten what her real face looked like. This book follows her journey of self discovery and what her place is in the world.

The writing style was different from anything I’ve read in a while, so that was a breath of fresh air. Ryan Graudin has a unique voice; she has a beautiful way of describing a character’s feelings and fears. I felt with Yael and what she was going through, throughout the story. She writes with a heavy hands towards metaphors, which I know bothers some people, but I love it.

Issues: Sometimes the flashbacks took away from the action of the outside story. Historical fiction oftentimes has a number of flashbacks, helping build understanding and supporting character development. In this book, they were crucial to understanding who Yael was and what her motivations were, but sometimes they interrupted the flow of the story. The motorycle race was so action packed that when the flashbacks were over, it took me a minute to get back into the outside story. It felt kind of up and down.

Characters: Yael is a really complex character. Her motivations were so grounded in her past experiences, but then she starts to question herself. I thought that was very realistic and easy to relate to – you think you know what you’re doing and are confident that it’s the right path, but then life happens and you second guess everything. Yael quickly became one of my favorite fictional female characters ever. She’s a survivor and a she-wolf, intriguing and again…very complex.

I couldn’t figure Luka out and even after finishing the book I’m not sure how to feel about him. And Felix, I love. I’m all for those protective brother characters! The sequel comes out this November, so some of the things I’m looking for involve Felix’s involvement and hopefully nailing Luka’s character down.

Genre: What an intriguing twist on history! I really enjoyed reading the alternate to reality and the possibilities if the war had turned out differently. At the same time, this story was a little out of my comfort zone because this was a difficult future to want to imagine.

Comparisons: This book made me think of the Amazon show, The Man in the High Castle. It’s similar in the sense that the Germans have won the war and have peace with the Japanese, splitting the land between them.

Final thoughts: I really enjoyed this book, overall. It’s fast paced, has a lot of depth, and is set up nicely for a sequel! If you’re wanting to read something that’s truly unique and shakes up your reading palate a little bit, this is the book for you.

Pick this up if you liked:

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

The Man in the High Castle series on Amazon Prime (or the book)

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

Goodreads rating: 4.33/5

Amazon.com rating: 4.5/5

My rating: 4.5/5

Happy reading! – Caitlyn

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Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

“‘Music does not have a race or a disposition!…Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts…Music surpasses all distinctions between people.'”

echo

Synopsis from GoodreadsLost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica. Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo. Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, this impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.

Feelings: I decided to read this book because it was one of the options for my students to choose from during our WWII themed literature circles. I hadn’t read it before and one of my nervous readers had chosen it. She was a little overwhelmed by the page count, so I wanted to be able to tell her it was easy to read or that she’d love it…the only problem was that I didn’t know if that would be true. So I took the book home the weekend before our lit circles started and dove into it. Oh my gosh. All my expectations were blown far out of the water.

Issues: I didn’t love the whole fairy tale magical element. Honestly, that part could have been taken out and the book would still be beautiful. It felt like there was a little disconnect between that story and the others told throughout the bulk of the book. Obviously, I see the harmonica’s connection and the three sisters appear to one of the characters, but it just felt like a stretch.

Characters: Friedrich’s story was so interesting! What’s unique about this WWII story is that it takes place right when Hitler rose to power. The musical elements added to the magic of the story, and I could see how the harmonica gave Friedrich courage and strength. His whole family dynamic was really educational to me. It got me thinking about Germans during this time period who didn’t support Hitler. I’d never really thought about them before. When the story ended, I turned the page and was shocked. THAT was how his story would end?! No! Then, Mike’s story began.

Mike and Frankie’s story was really moving. These brothers were desperate to stay together, and they were willing to risk everything. Their story reminded me of Annie – the rich adoptive parent and the wide-eyed child wanting to be loved, wanting to be wanted. It felt like everything was leading up to his audition, then all of a sudden we flew through it. It made me reconsider what exactly we were building to, which I guess was him finding out where he belonged. Just as the conflict was at its peak, it was over. WHAT?! Ugh…again with the lack of resolution.

Enter Ivy’s story. Honestly, at first I was a little bored. Then the story became more and more complex, filled with cultural tensions and stereotypes and I was hooked. I love how the author included this story because I feel like when we talk about WWII, we only talk about the Holocaust. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t, but we have to remember the Japanese internment camps, as well. They deserve to be remembered. Ivy will be the character I remember from this book above all the others – her determination, her courage, her openness. Then once again…we’re at the point of highest interest and we’re dropped.

Feelings, Part 2: THAT ENDING. The way that the author weaved these stories together was so beautifully done. All of my questions were answered and we finally figure out what happened after those 3 cliff-hangers.

The main element of this book is music. The inclusion of songs at the beginning of each part and the way those songs are woven into the story was so unique. There were so many quotes from this book that I wrote down, highlighted, and copied/pasted into my brain regarding music and the way it intertwines with ours souls and our emotions. The author truly understands the power of music and it comes through on every page.

Genre: This book is part fantasy, part historical fiction…so I’d maybe put this into a genre of magical realism. The book begins with a fairy tale of sorts, introducing us to the harmonica and the courage and life it provides the characters later on.

Final thoughts: While the print version is wonderful, I’d also highly recommend the audio book. There’s so much discussion of music throughout and the audio version actually has music playing whenever it’s written about. This added a new dimension to the author’s storytelling. Do yourself a favor and read this book. Don’t even read the back cover because the book is way better than you think it’s going to be. Trust me on this one.

Pick this up if you liked:

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson

Goodreads rating: 4.31/5

Amazon.com rating: 4.5/5

My rating: 4.75/5

Happy reading! – Caitlyn

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?”

between shades

Synopsis from GoodreadsLina 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.

Feelings: I don’t know how Ruta Sepetys does it, but she writes the most beautiful characters. I’ve now read all 3 of her books, and she’s so consistently on point.

This is a classic page-turner. I wanted more and more. I thought about it, even when I wasn’t reading it, wondering how my favorite characters were holding up without me. I love this book because it changed my mind narrative on WWII. I no longer see WWII only as a time with concentration camps, where Jews and outcasts were horribly treated and killed. This was also a time when small nations lost their identity, just for being in the way. They were removed from their homes and shipped off to do meaningless work, treated like animals. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not looking down at the narrative time has written; I’m not saying it wasn’t significant – I’m just saying we have to remember everyone that suffered. These people – Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians – they deserve their part of history, too.

Issues: Part of me wishes that we’d gotten more between the last chapter and the epilogue. I had some questions that I still wanted answered, but at the same time I was satisfied. Does that even make sense? I was invested in these characters and I wanted more!

Characters: Because I recently read Salt to the Sea, I couldn’t help but compare Joana, from that novel, to Lina from this one. I knew going into this book that it was about Joana’s cousin, which was really intriguing. Joana may be one of my favorite characters ever written, but Lina was awesome, too. Like her cousin, she’s strong and determined, but I think she grew a lot more over the course of her story than Joana did. Lina struggled with helping others and trusting people, but by the end of the story she had grown into a mature young woman, tackling the world.

Genre: If you’re new here, you may not know how much I love historical fiction. So, let me fill you in: I LOVE historical fiction. One thing I love about Sepetys’s other WWII novel is the way she includes historical facts in her author’s note. She’s so invested in telling these truths and making sure the world knows about the forgotten Baltic countries that suffered under Hitler and Stalin. I really respect that.

Final thoughts: In the end, I thought this story was beautiful and powerful. It wasn’t haunting, like some WWII stories, but it did stay with me, emotionally. I shed some tears near the end and read the entire second half of the book in one sitting. Those are the markings of a great novel, in my opinion.

Pick this up if you liked:

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Goodreads rating: 4.32/5

Amazon.com rating: 4.7/5

My rating: 4.75/5

Happy reading! – Caitlyn

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

“…life always takes the side of life, and somehow the victims are blamed. But it wasn’t the best people who survived, nor did the best ones die. It was random!”

maus

Synopsis from GoodreadsThe Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times). Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

Feelings: It’s really interesting to see Vladek’s point of view, no only during the war, but before it as well – long before it. He tells his son about his own father’s military experiences in Siberia (where he pulled out 14 of his teeth in order to escape) and how he and Art’s mother met. I was intrigued by what all Vladek had to do in order to avoid the Gestapo. He and Anja had to beg, barter, borrow, and more just to try and survive, constantly being on the move and being incredibly afraid.

What’s really special about this collection of comics is that vulnerability. The author is also a character in the book, discussing his insecurities about trying to write his parents’ truth, which he says was, “a reality that was worse than [his] darkest dreams.” You see him struggling to get the complex reality down on paper and then doing so in a compelling and moving way. The art style itself was really simple. I had just finished a book club where we had read a superhero comic book, discussing the funny anecdotes in the backgrounds of all the panels, like hidden gems. With Maus, though, there were no distractions. The focus was on the storyline, itself, with nothing hidden in the artwork that you needed to closely inspect.

Issues: Art and his father were both so awful to Mala! They were hateful both to her face and behind her back. At the same time, though, she was pretty awful right back toward them. What a strange dynamic.

It was really difficult to get through the sections about gas chambers in Auschwitz. I think it was harder to read about this topic in a comic book setting because of the visuals. It’s one thing to imagine it in your head and it’s another to actually see it drawn out in front of you. As difficult as it was to see, I appreciate that Spiegelman didn’t hide any truths from his readers.

Characters: Vladek reminded me of my grandfather. Now, my grandfather didn’t go through the Holocaust or anything remotely like it, but he was frugal. He placed a high value in making smart monetary choices, all for the betterment of those he’d leave behind when he passed. The cinching of the purse strings frustrated Vladek’s wife, which is something that felt familiar,as well. Also, I liked the way Vladek’s dialogue was written. I could hear him in my head very clearly, accent and all.

I felt for Art. He had a hard relationship with his father, struggling to understand the history that shaped his father. He also wrestled with the death of the older brother he never knew, who died during the war, as well as the loss of his mother. This book focuses a lot on relationships – both with family and with others.

Final thoughts: It’s hard to describe my feelings towards this book. I didn’t necessarily “enjoy” reading this book, because it deals with a heavy subject. If you’re looking for something that’ll lift your spirits and make you laugh, go elsewhere. But if you want to read something that shows you a whole new narrative on a history you thought you knew, this is the read for you. I’m glad that I read it.

Pick this up if you liked:

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Goodreads rating: 4.51/5

Amazon.com rating: 4.6/5

My rating: 4.5/5

Happy reading! – Caitlyn

All the Light We Cannot See

*I’m going to do my best to make this spoiler-free, as I want you to immediately purchase this book as soon as you finish this blog post.*

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

light

Synopsis: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr follows a myriad of characters, chief of whom are Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French blind girl, and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan with a knack for fixing radios. As their stories unfold, we see the small connections in their vastly different worlds, as well as a historical context unfamiliar to most of us. Both of these characters are children at the start of World War II, forced to grow up in ways we cannot imagine. Both see the true extent of the war and the goals of the Reich, surrounded by a supporting cast of driven individuals. This story, however, is full of so much more than war and suffering. Doerr pens a symphony with this novel.

Feelings: I. Love. This. Book. I smiled, I mourned, I cried…all of the feels. I thought it was so beautiful and wonderful and necessary. I’ve been reading a lot of YA lit over the last few years, so it was a little more difficult for me to really dig into this bit of historical fiction. A lot of historical fiction I’ve read in the past has been dense, full of facts and things we learned in the classroom. AtLWCS, however, was light and airy, hinting towards the things we should already know. It was heavy, of course, but in a way that forces the reader to remember the context of this story. It’s so much more than just a story, though. It is a nod towards the others who suffered during World War II, whom the world is afraid to speak of.

Characters: The way that Doerr writes Marie-Laure’s character allows the reader to feel and see what it is like to be blind. Marie-Laure does not live in darkness, but rather she is surrounded by the light the rest of us cannot see. Werner’s struggles were particularly heart-wrenching, as he is a pure soul, trapped by a nation’s war mongering. I found myself deeply invested in the lives of all of the characters, not just these two.

Issues: At first, I was picking this book up every few days, which made the timeline of the story hard to follow. Once I committed to reading in 50 page increments, however, the story flowed much better. At the halfway point, I couldn’t put it down. I ended up really enjoying how the timeline was written. I thought the beginning was brilliantly done and I was satisfied with the ending. Sometimes it’s difficult to read a book that doesn’t end how your fingers are crossed it will end, but that just makes this book that much more real.

Comparisons: Initially, I was afraid this book would be from the same vein as The Book Thief (one of my favorites of all time), but I really didn’t see any connections, besides the obvious war setting and young characters. The writing style is very different, as are the characters.

Final thoughts: If you’re willing to commit the time that this story deserves, pick it up. If you’re looking for a quick read that’ll give you the feels, look elsewhere. This is a game-changing book. This is one will stay with you, reminding you to, “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” Breathtaking. Flawless. Masterful.

Pick this up if you liked:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (both stories about World War II with children as main characters)

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (I haven’t read this one, but it’s a popular new release also about WWII with a French perspective)

 

Goodreads rating: 4.28/5

Amazon.com rating: 4.6/5

My rating: 5/5

Happy reading! – Caitlyn