Wednesday, March 13, 2013

February Reading Recap

Image from Musings of a Book Lover

Yes, I know it's already mid-March, but I read (and re-read) several great books in February that I couldn't stop talking about.  I just didn't have time to write about them!  Here are four of my top February reads.

Annie's Ghost: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

For Steve Luxenberg's entire life, he believed his mother was an only child.  This belief was not born of assumption.  His mother proclaimed often to friends and family alike that she grew up the sole daughter of immigrant parents in Detroit during the mid-twentieth century.  It came as quite a shock, then, to Luxenberg and his brothers and sisters when upon their mother's death, they discover she had a sister.  Early investigation indicated that perhaps their aunt died at a very young age before his mother really interacted with or grew attached to her as a person.  Although it seemed odd not to mention her, at least this explained why she may have denied the existence of a sibling.  Luxenberg was not satisfied, however, and spent many long hours tracking down medical records, distant relatives, and family friends to uncover the true story of Annie, the sister his mother swore she never had.  Annie's Ghost chronicles this journey into the past, and what Luxenberg discovers about his physically disabled aunt who was institutionalized in her late teens/early twenties for a mental disorder and died there in her mid-fifties will shock you.  It is a riveting account of what happens when you begin rattling the skeletons in the family closet.

One of my really good friends, whose book recommendations I value, lent me her copy of Annie's Ghost to read last summer - that's right several months ago.  I was intrigued by the story line, but I was not feeling the heavy duty history lesson that would come with it.  I finally picked it up at the beginning of this year, and it blew me away.  The first night that I started reading it I was flying through the pages, and I was on about page 60 when my husband interrupted me and asked, "Is that a really good book?"  My husband does not normally question me about my reading habits, so I was puzzled, but I responded, "Yes, it's fascinating."  To which he replied, "I figured because you had this really intense look on your face while you were reading."  Apparently this is a book whose affect can be physically witnessed.  Luxenberg's writing style is very accessible, and the book itself is thoroughly researched.  He is very careful to keep it from only being a portrait of family secrets and broadens the scope of his story to touch on issues such as the changing field of mental health, immigration, and racial and religious tensions pre-, during, and post- WWII.  All in all this is an interesting and engrossing read.  Best matched with fans of historical memoirs.

Read for the Reading Outside the Box Challenge hosted by Kate at Musings of a Book Lover
#2 Another Voice

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman (illustrator)

Min is an off-beat teenage girl, labeled "artistic" by her peers.  She loves old movies and has a tight-knit circle of similarly off-beat friends when she meets Ed, All-American basketball star, and they begin to date.  Ed has established himself as the quintessential jock, right down to all the notches in his belt.  He is so far from Min's type that it is laughable - which is currently what most of the student body does when they see them together.  However, Min is deliriously happy.  Underneath the jock exterior, Ed is actually a really sweet guy who goes along with Min's wild schemes to cook up a dinner party for a famous actress she thinks lives in a nearby neighborhood.  He professes that Min is unlike any girl he's ever known, and she believes him until the pressure of dating an outsider begins to wear on both of them.  As the title of the novel indicates, Min and Ed have broken up, and Min is on a mission to prove to Ed just why that is.  The novel is really an epistle from Min to Ed and is interspersed with drawings of the sentimental objects she collected during their courtship that she is now returning to him as evidence of why they broke up.

I liked Min.  I found her a fun, quirky character.  I sympathized with her heartbreak, but most importantly, I enjoyed watching her grow over the course of the novel to realize that, as cliche as it sounds, you can be anyone that you want to be, and anyone who tries to box you in, even if that box looks special and unique, is not worth it.  Best matched with readers looking for an off-beat high school perspective.

Read for the Reading Outside the Box Challenge hosted by Kate at Musings of a Book Lover
#10 Look at the pretty pictures!

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

February marked the inauguration of the Sarah Dessen Re-Read Challenge hosted by I Eat Words.  The first book on deck was Just Listen, one of Dessen's later novels.  I didn't remember much about this novel outside the love interest, Owen Armstrong, was a music junkie and a bit of a tough guy.  I was thoroughly surprised then that the central issue of Just Listen is familial rather than romantic.  This book is deep and had me gasping and even crying as Dessen chronicled the faltering relationship between three sisters, Kirsten, Whitney, and Annabel.  Suffice it to say, I could really relate to these girls.

All three girls have been models at some point, and part of the book deals with the struggle to follow your dreams when you don't want to disappoint your parents.  Kirsten and Annabel no longer desire to be a part of the modeling scene, and Kirsten, ever the vocal one, has no problem saying so and striking out on her own in search of a film career at a school in New York.  Annabel continues to pursue modeling gigs, mostly for her mother's sake, but also for the sake of her sister Whitney, the only one who really wants to be a model but no longer can because of a crippling eating disorder.  Living with the memory of finding her sister's emaciated body collapsed on the bathroom floor, Annabel can't turn from the one activity that seems to bind her family together even though she can't stand the thought of being viewed for only her body like she was over the summer by a boy she thought was a friend.

Whew!  Written in Dessen's deceptively simple style, there is a lot of high school angst in this book, but throughout it all, Owen remains a constant source of strength for Annabel.  Best matched with fans of contemporary YA.

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Lina is a teenage girl in Lithuania on the cusp of World War II.  For reasons that never become clear, her family is taken in the middle of the night and forced into years of work camps, first in Siberia and then inside the Arctic Circle.  In Ruta Sepetys' blunt, hard-hitting style, Lina struggles to come of age in a country at war and reconcile the often inconceivable instances of callous violence and abuse she witnesses with the incomparable germ of hope that characterizes humanity.

"They took me in my nightgown."

From the first line of the first page of Sepetys' novel, Between Shades of Gray, readers are tossed into the fear and turmoil of life in the 1940s - especially life in a country ruled by Josef Stalin.  And from this first moment, unfathomable images of terror and violence continue in a deluge.  Just as there is no reprieve for Lina and her family, there is no reprieve for the reader.  I was constantly shocked by the NKVD officers' treatment of the Lithuanian people.  However, Sepetys' prose never overwhelmed me.  The book is comprised of mostly simple sentences, yet they convey unimaginable depth.

Best matched with: in my opinion, Sepetys' novel is an important book that everyone needs to read.  It chronicles a period of history that everyone knows about but from a perspective that to this day has been boxed in and buried. 


  1. I have got to read Between Shades of Gray! It has been on my list for-EVER and I have heard nothing but good about this one. "Why we broke up" sounds interesting too! Great, quick reviews! Thanks for being a part of our Reading challenge!

    1. YES YES YES for Between Shades of Grey - I love it so much it should have it's own post, but I just can't say anything else about it other than it is amazingly good, deep, and important.

  2. Between Shades of Gray is one of my most recommended books on Goodreads. i will definitely check it out now :)