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Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Genre: Historical Fiction/War/Young Adult
Copy: Online
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌗

Short Synopsis: 

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.

What I liked:

1. The POV. This is the first WWII novel I have come to read that is not centered on the plight of Jews during Hitler’s regime (which just reminds me again that I must not call myself a well-read person). It gave me a glimpse of the side of war that I have not paid close attention to before: the struggles of the lesser known European countries during Stalin’s rule. One will have to read this novel with a lump in their throat. From the first page to the last, there were suffering and misery and death. There were moments of hope, too, sneaking in and out of their gray days. But as with all wars, nobody truly wins in the end.

The POV from a teenage Lithuanian girl is also a welcome take. And the use of art (drawing) to reveal the truth and to connect with others is powerful move. I find the bittersweet flashbacks of Lina’s family life before the war a breather. It reminded me of the real humans before they were turned into a walking ghost.

2. The characters. Each individual is a gem, from the likeable to the unlikeable. The characterization felt real and I found it easy to jump from one shoe to another. It was an emotional rollercoaster living the lives of these characters. Their pain, frustration, fear, anger, madness — I felt it all. The only thing that felt distant to me is their resilience (perhaps reading the book in these anxious times made it so).

Continue reading “Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys”

Book Review: Echoes by Danielle Steel 

Genre: Historical Fiction/War/Romance
Copy: Paperback
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌖

Short Synopsis: Against a vivid backdrop of history, Danielle Steel tells a compelling story of love and war, acts of faith and acts of betrayal…and of three generations of women as they journey though years of loss and survival, linked by an indomitable devotion that echoes across time.

For the Wittgenstein family, the summer of 1915 was a time of both prosperity and unease, as the guns of war sound in the distance. But for eldest daughter Beata, it was also a summer of awakening. By the glimmering waters of Lake Geneva, the quiet Jewish beauty met a young French officer and fell in love. Knowing that her parents would never accept her marriage to a Catholic, Beata followed her heart anyway. And as the two built a new life together, Beata’s past would stay with her in ways she could never have predicted. For as the years pass, and Europe is once again engulfed in war, Beata must watch in horror as Hitler’s terror threatens her life and family–even her eighteen-year-old daughter Amadea, who has taken on the vows of a Carmelite nun.

For Amadea, the convent is no refuge. As family and friends are swept away without a trace, Amadea is forced into hiding. Thus begins a harrowing journey of survival, as she escapes into the heart of the French Resistance. Here Amadea will find a renewed sense of purpose, taking on the most daring missions behind enemy lines. And it is here, in the darkest moments of fear, that Amadea will feel her mother’s loving strength–and that of her mother’s mother before her–as the voices of lost loved ones echo powerfully in her heart. And here, amid the fires of war, Amadea will meet an extraordinary man, British secret agent Rupert Montgomery. In Colonel Montgomery, Amadea finds a man who will help her discover her place in an unbreakable chain between generations…and between her lost family and her dreams for the future–a future she is only just beginning to imagine: a future of hope rooted in the rich soil of the past.

What I liked:

  1. It is a story of war. Of war between races and war between faiths. Of war between families and war between selves. Of the war from within and the war from without. We are never short of historical fiction that portray life during the WWII — The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, All the Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, you name it. In Echoes, Danielle Steel zooms into the very nucleus of society, the family, to illustrate the influence of war and its costs.
  2. It is a story of family. Three generations of women — Monika, Beata, Amadea — carried me on a compelling journey against the backdrop of war. Each of these women experiences internal and external conflicts, and confronts them in contrasting ways. Monika, weighed down by her husband’s domination, is unable to stand up for her daughter. Beata, who found courage in love but lost it upon her lover’s death, becomes a cowardly widow and a distant mother to her kids. Amadea, forced to mature at an early age, grows with a free mind and spirit but is thrust into the horrors of death camps. It was fascinating to follow how these women held the family together… and separately.
  3. It is a story of love. Echoes depicts love in all its phases and faces. Romantic love, familial love, enduring love, self love, agape love. The kind of love that takes you by surprise; the kind of love that takes its time. The kind of love that blooms because of shared pain; the kind of love that grows with patience. A love that hurts; a love that heals. In the midst of confusion and chaos, there was love at heart of the story.

What I didn’t like: None, actually. If there’s one thing I would have loved to know is what happened to Amadea’s mother and sister. But I do appreciate how Danielle Steel made the plot more realistic by not giving us that closure. Because back then, people were taken away… and no one never knew what happened most of the time.

Favorite quotes:

The essence of prayer is not to think a lot, but to love a lot.”

“Don’t hate anyone,” Beata said quietly. “It’s too much work. And it only poisons you.”

“I fear that once you put weapons in men’s hands, they don’t let go of them easily.”

Final Thoughts: This book is a reminder that we cannot escape the echoes of our past. But just as what Monika, Beata and Amadea did, we can always choose to live in the present and move forward. Overall, it’s an enjoyable first read for me. And I would definitely dare to try another Danielle Steel novel again.

Have you read Echoes? Did you like it as much as I did?

Book Review: The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho

Genre: Fiction/Religion/Philosophy
Copy: Paperback
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌕🌖

Short Synopsis: A stranger arrives at the remote village of Viscos, carrying with him a backpack containing a notebook and eleven gold bars. He comes searching for the answer to a question that torments him: Are human beings, in essence, good or evil? In welcoming the mysterious foreigner, the whole village becomes an accomplice to his sophisticated plot, which will forever mark their lives.

A novel of temptation by the internationally bestselling author Paulo Coelho, The Devil and Miss Prym is a thought-provoking parable of a community devoured by greed, cowardice, and fear—as it struggles with the choice between good and evil. 

Five reasons to read the book:

1) The questions it asks. Are human beings inherently good or evil? Why do we give in to temptations? How far can we go for it? What is more important: the life of one innocent or the prosperity of many? Does the end justify the means? Reading each page of The Devil and Miss Prym is like solving a series of trolley dilemma. Coelho, in a carefully crafted fiction, throws ethical and moral questions at you that leave plenty of room for nuances and introspection.

2) Chantal Prym is all of us. Chantal is not a likeable character; she has her faults and weaknesses just as she has goodness and strengths. We’ve all been through the same struggle where our morals, ego, and what we think we deserve clash. That is why it is easy to BE her in the story.

3) It’s good without being preachy. It doesn’t pit good and evil but instead, shows the correlation between man, and good and evil. The Devil and Miss Prym reminds us of our free will and the consequences that come with it. Everything is matter of choice, big or small.

4) The time frame. As with the two other books in the trilogy, And on the Seventh Day, this story chronicles a week in the life of Chantal. I like how I can be “in the moment” without thinking much about the characters’ past or future.

5) Coelho’s trademark prose and mysticism. While not everyone is into his kind of writing, I enjoyed every page of this book.

Highlighted Quotes: 

“Whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want. No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.”

“People want to change everything and, at the same time, want it all to remain the same.”

“So you see, Good and Evil have the same face; it all depends on when they cross the path of each individual human being.”

“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready.”

“Victories and defeats form part of everyone’s life – everyone, that is, except cowards, as you call them, because they never lose or win.”

Final Thoughts: 

Truth is, I had more questions than answers after reading this book. Though this is not the first time for I felt the same with Veronika Decides to Die and By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept. But I like how Coelho continues to give me more reasons to be interested at life and living.

Here’s a snippet from a note I wrote when I first read The Devil and Miss Prym in 2012:

Every day is a struggle between good and evil — not one person is completely noble or totally wicked. We encounter questions and situations that put us in a crossroad between right and wrong. At most times, the hardest part is weighing things right. The things that we do, the words that we say, and the thoughts that we contemplate rely on how we deal with the overlapping dos and don’ts. In the end, the decision is ours on which is which…

Because just as what Paulo Coelho said,
“It was all a matter of control. And Choice.
Nothing more, nothing less.”


Posting this long-overdue review in celebration of Paulo Coelho’s 74th birthday today. Feliz cumpleaños, Sr. Coelho. Que tengas una larga vida y nos hagas muchos libros. ❤

Have you read The Devil and Miss Prym? Did you like it as much as I did?

 

Book Talk: How do you beat reading slump?

I have not read for a while now. One of my bookmarks is stuck on page 60 of Atwood’s Alias Grace; the other is on page 12 of Ikigai.

I could not keep up.

My mind is in disarray. There’s a live wire inside of me that carries alternating concern and indifference. If I switch between the two, I’d short circuit either way.

A funny metaphor, I know. And probably erroneous too, but who would pay much attention to such mistake when the world has had enough of it?

How are you?
Are you living well?
I hope so…

This is me on my third try at getting back to life. It Cornwell’s From Potter’s Field this time.

Quick Notes: Contemporary YAs that once made my young heart flutter

Last night, for the first time after a long while, I opened my Goodreads account. How time flies… This is where I used to keep a real-time update on my reading progress before.

Now, it remains a quiet place of dusty virtual bookshelves.

In my boredom, I found delight in skimming my old posts — especially reading my thoughts on contemporary YAs. It brought me back to the time when I was most hopeless romantic. Still is (though a little older now). I’m grateful for these books for filling the gap in my lack of experience on love and heartaches. For inspiring some of my poems and short stories. For making my young hear flutter.

Hence, I’ve decided to share them here in WordPress. Perhaps, some people here needs a little extra cheese or a quick read. Hope this helps.

  1. The Awaken series by Katie Kackvisnky – A dystopia rather than a love story. This is how I would describe the Awaken series. It is set in 2060, a not-so-distant future, where human interaction is almost nonexistent due to the fact that everything can be done online. Kids attend digital school, friends and families get together virtually, shopping are done by the touch of a keypad, etc. These are imagined scenes that are slowly turning into reality in today’s world. A must-read in this digital era.
⭐⭐⭐⭐

“Life should be a risk. It’s more than a straight line that you can see clearly from one point to the other. It dips and curves and you never know what’s around the bend sometimes until you get there. That scares a lot of people. But that’s the beauty of it.” ―Awaken

Continue reading “Quick Notes: Contemporary YAs that once made my young heart flutter”

Quick Notes: Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Genre: Realistic Fiction/Philosophy/Mental Health
Copy: Paperback
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌖

“Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

This line from Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie perfectly summarizes Veronika Decides to Die for me.

Inspired by events from Coelho’s past life, this book tells the story of Veronika — a 24-year-old woman who seems to have everything anyone could ever ask for. Nonetheless, she feels dissatisfied and makes a decision to end her life. She lives and survives and finds herself in a mental asylum where her life completely change.

I finished Veronika Decides to Die last week but it took me a while to wrap my emotions around it. Not sure if it’s the timing, since I was going through another anxiety phase when I was reading it; or because I haven’t considered suicide yet; or because Veronika’s troubles hit very close to home.

Life and death are the central themes of the story, as are madness and conformity.

This book will make you ponder on the consequences of living a repressed life, one that conforms to the norms set by society or that is bounded by one’s own limiting beliefs. It will have you thinking about the days when you feel like Veronika (tired of your prosaic life), or Zedka (unable to keep your emotions at ease), or Mari (too afraid so you choose to escape the real world), or Eduard (constrained by other people’s demand and pressure). It will make you question your authenticity — and insanity.

What would I do if death comes sooner than I expected? Truth is, I don’t know. But just as Vilette is a “safe place” for these people to express themselves, I’d say poetry is my own. Perhaps through these poems, I’d get to figure out myself and life.

Overall, this novel left me more questions than realizations (which is a good thing). Looking forward to finding the answers as I live my numbered days. 😀

Book Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Genre: Historical Fiction/Religion/Feminism
Copy: Paperback
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌕🌖

Short Synopsis: Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters of the Book of Genesis that are about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons. Told in Dinah’s voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoils of ancient womanhood—the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers—Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah—the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that sustain her through a hard-working youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a foreign land. Dinah’s story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates an intimate connection with the past. Deeply affecting, The Red Tent combines rich storytelling with a valuable achievement in modern fiction: a new view of biblical women’s society.

What I Liked:

  1. Diamant’s writing. Poetic and lyrical were my reactions when I read the first few pages of the book. I love the tone of voice Diamant used for the main character Dinah. Her prose is very visual and animated. It felt like listening to a spoken word poetry.
  2. A breath of fresh air. I’m not a keen Bible reader. I am one of those who only knew Dinah as a name mentioned in the Bible. That is why I find it refreshing to read a fictional first-person narrative about her version of her life. Through the eyes of Dinah, we get an insight, if only re-imagined, of biblical times. We get to learn about their cultures, practices and way of life.
  3. The curiosities in the Red Tent. In the book, women we’re treated by men as subordinate — submissive, used, cursed — a scene still recognizable in today’s world. However, their resilience shines within the boundaries of the red tent, where I would say most of the interesting scenes happen. It is where women go during their periods (although I find it a little weird that all the women in the story has a synced cycle). In the red tent, the lives of women are kept alive through storytelling and memories. In the red tent, secrets, conversations and feelings are shared. In the red tent, you get a sense of how powerful women can be. Blood signifies both life and death, beginning and end, pain and pleasure, tears and joy. Such interesting things to ponder.

What I didn’t like: The book, in general, takes a feminist slant so I understand that the POVs are focused mostly on women. However, there were slightly biased depictions of men. Some lack character development, while others seem like trifling characters.

Favorite quotes:

“If you want to understand any woman you must first ask about her mother and then listen carefully.”

“The painful things seemed like knots on a beautiful necklace, necessary for keeping the beads in place.”

“Of all life’s pleasures, only love owes no debt to death.”

“I could not get my fill of looking.
There should be a song for women to sing at this moment (giving birth) or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name that moment.”

“Death is no enemy, but the foundation of gratitude, sympathy, and art.”

“It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering seems a holy thing.”

Final Thoughts: Captivating. Rich. Beautifully and poignantly penned. It may only be a fictionalized version but every page brims with life.

I’m glad that this novel did not end with forgiveness of sins and starting all over because some sins are far too great to be forgiven, more so forgotten. But not forgiving others does not necessarily means living every day with anger. This is what Dinah showed me. It is choosing to walk away from the bad and move forward. And, sometimes, the closure we seek cannot be found in others but within ourselves.

My reading heart is full.

Have you read The Red Tent? Did you like it as much as I did?

Quick Notes: Famous Tales of Mystery and Horror by Edgar Allan Poe

Genre: Short Story/Horror/Mystery
Copy: Paperback
Rating: 🌕🌕🌕🌖

Edgar Allan Poe’s first love as a writer was poetry, but he is often known for his short stories which present a cast of peculiar murderers and madmen. I remember reading The Cask of Amontillado during my grade school days. I used to read it over and over and, looking back, I think it was that very story which sparked my interest in the murder mystery genre.

Fast forward 20 years later, here I am rekindling my love for Poe’s fictions. Famous Tales of Mystery and Horror is like an reintroduction to me. The book is a collection of five classic stories — all of which masterfully told in only few words.

Here are my Goodreads entries for each of the tales:

The Telltale Heart (1843) demonstrates Poe’s command of language. He has a way of letting you into a madman’s mind.

The Masque of the Red Death (1842) depicts the inevitability of death and man’s reaction when confronted by it.

Fear. Denial. Rage. Poe, in very few pages, has captured the many follies of man in trying to escape death. This story is a reminder that despite the glares and glitters of life, of our piquancy and phantasm, we will always find death more bizarre.

The Oblong Box (1844) presents a common scene in today’s films. I must admit I saw what was coming in this story. Still, Poe’s descriptives are something to behold.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) was the first of Poe’s three tales of ratiocination which introduced logical reasoning as the method of solving a crime. With the creation of C. Auguste Dupin (the world’s first fictional detective), Poe outlined elements that future novelists, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would adapt and rework.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue was precursored with talks about the game of chess and the mental prowess it requires a player. From then, I knew that it would be a detective story — and, indeed, a well told locked-room mystery it was.

The Purloined Letter (1844) is another story following the exploits of C. Auguste Dupin. It reminds me a lot of Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia with the elements of a missing letter and an anxious important person who wants to obtain it. We get a taste of the power of observation through Dupin, who saw above and below what authorities can. What this story taught me, in the end, was that the best way to keep something hidden is not to hide it.

Overall, Famous Tales of Mystery and Horror is a worthwhile read for every mystery-seeking bookworm out there. Can’t wait to read more of Poe’s works of fiction! 🤩

Writer’s Quote Wednesday – Cowardice

Featured quote for Writer's Quote Wednesday

“Cowardice is the most terrible of vices.”

― Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

So today, my first book haul for the month of March arrived in the office. It’s The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I have been looking for a cheaper preloved copy of the book for quite some time and, although payday is still far away, I just couldn’t miss the chance when I found one in Shopee.

I think it’s meant to be too since today we remember Bulgakov’s 81st death anniversary. Have you read The Master and Margarita? Sharing this quote from the book. 😀

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