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historical fiction

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 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?

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