Tag Archives: Ruta Sepetys

Bookwitch bites #143

‘If the bacon flashes…’ It was late. I was tired. And some sign appeared to mention flashing bacon at Edinburgh airport. The second time I looked it said beacon. Whatever. I need to give up careless reading.

Holiday postal yield

We arrived home in the middle of the night. Thank goodness for 24 hour M&S where you can get your milk and juice and bread. Not to mention blueberries. Possibly also bacon. The postman hadn’t been too busy carting vanfuls of books to Bookwitch Towers while we were gone. Almost half of what you can see here arrived five minutes before we left. We had a quick look, in case there was anything that warranted a change of holiday reading plans. Yeah, I know the armchair should be for sitting in, but the books had to go somewhere.

Our leftover holiday milk was left (obviously) for Son who took over after us. His route from Helsingborg on Friday had him meandering between visiting the New Librarian, picking up Dodo in Copenhagen and [finally!] meeting ‘his’ author Andreas Norman, a mere three years – or is it four? – after translating Into A Raging Blaze. Seems selfies are the way to go these days. (My arms are too short.)

Andreas Norman and Ian Giles

On the home front the Carnegie Medal was busy being given to Ruta Sepetys on Monday. I wish I had read her winning book, Salt to the Sea, but despite no one sending it my way, I am sure it was a worthy winner. I’ve loved Ruta’s other books, and the refugee topic is as important today as it was in 1945.

Ending on a sad note, Swedish author Ulf Stark died a week ago. Having spent most of my life fairly unaware of him, it’s been different since I met Ulf in Manchester five years ago. There is never a good age to die, but Ulf was definitely too young to go at 72. Goodbye, and thanks for the singing.

Ulf Stark

The Endless Steppe

Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe was re-issued a few years ago now, and it has been sitting on my close radar ever since. I knew it’d be good, but perhaps not quite this good. It’s the kind of book you kick yourself for not having got to sooner. But I comfort myself in the knowledge that I finished reading it on – what would have been – Esther’s 85 birthday. She celebrates a few birthdays in the book, so it seemed appropriate.

Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe

If you’ve read Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, this – especially the beginning – will seem awfully familiar. Nothing to do with copying; it’s just that both are describing the same event, for very similar people. It’s when the Russians rounded up the Jews in Vilnius in 1941 and put them on goods trains to Siberia.

Ten-year-old Esther gets taken from the large house, and loving home, where she lived with nearly all her relatives. Many of them disappeared that morning, and it’s only Esther and her parents and grandparents who are put on the back of a lorry. But they were the ‘lucky’ ones, as everyone else eventually died in the concentration camps.

They spent five years in Rubtsovsk, which was then merely a village. After a tough start planting potatoes and trying to make them grow in the harsh Siberian conditions, the family ended up working and living mainly in Rubtsovsk. It sounds good, but life for them was very difficult. Even for people who had been born there life was hard. The winters sound so cruel you can’t believe anyone could survive.

Her beautiful mother almost kills herself working in one job worse than the other, and her father is often forced to work away, while living conditions [renting a small corner of someone else’s very small home] meant that they couldn’t always be with Esther’s grandmother. As for herself, at the end she almost comes to love it in Siberia. She has friends and she adores school.

This being an account of what happened to real people it is very inspiring while also being quite awful. You have all the memories of the hunger and the cold, beautifully combined with the tale of a child growing up, and all the humour that this entails, as well as ordinary childhood angst. Written in the 1960s, it’s not that long afterwards, so I imagine Esther remembered most of the details. I was left wanting to know more about her life, and that of her parents. I hoped she’d still be alive, but she died in 2009.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

It’s more than that. It’s most of the war, but the story began on that winter’s day in Poland in 1939, when WWII was new and people hoped it might soon be over.

Melinda Szymanik’s book brings home the sheer pointlessness of much that happened in the war. The fighting itself is not good, but it at least has a purpose, however bad. But it’s the putting people into concentration camps or carting them across half a continent, simply because they are ‘unwanted’ and no one can think what to do with them, that really gets to me.

After American Rose’s internment in Ravensbrück in Rose Under Fire, and the interminable travels of all those Lithuanians in Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray, as they are shunted from place to place, I have read more of the same. Only now it’s Poles who are taken on a strange journey where no one wants them. They are to be kept out of the way.

The story about Adam and his family is based closely on the real experiences of Melinda’s father Leszek. First the Russians come and take thousands of Polish families through Russia because they are somehow the enemy. After enduring a couple of years of cold winters and unbearable summers doing hard, but pointless work, including seeing members of their family die; when Germany invaded Russia ‘they were transformed from being an inconvenience into something useful.’

After more politics the British take over and the Polish soldiers end up fighting for them instead. They are taken from the cold north to the warm Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and ultimately to Persia. But it’s not only war that kills the new soldiers. Illness spreads even before they have fought. More people die.

Mercifully the descriptions in A Winter’s Day are sketchy at times, and there actually is no need to go into excrutiating detail. It is grim, and it becomes quite clear what made this a world war. It wasn’t merely that many countries fought, but that people ended up fighting in the most unexpected places, where they didn’t belong, for armies other than their own.

And afterwards they are in many cases displaced forever, needing or wanting to start new lives somewhere else. That’s why Melinda is a New Zealander.

Out of the Easy

I enjoyed this book so much! Out of the Easy is the new book by Ruta Sepetys, published this week. In her first book Ruta proved how much she knew about being a starving Lithuanian, whereas here she is a right madam.

Is it OK to feature a brothel in a YA novel? I mean as the main thing the book is actually about. I think it is. Ruta writes awfully knowledgeably about it, too.

Ruta Sepetys, Out of the Easy

Set in 1950 in New Orleans, Out of the Easy feels really fresh. By that I mean it’s in no way a standard story for young readers, either in setting or in plot. The first chapter where we meet 7-year-old Josie and her hooker mother is one of the more captivating first chapters I’ve come across in a long time.

And the rest of the story, set ten years later, keeps the pace and the promise. Josie has long looked after herself, since her mother is incapable of doing so, or even caring that she doesn’t. There are no regrets at all. Instead Josie has a makeshift, but well functioning family around her, from the local madam and her driver, to the author and owner of the bookshop where Josie sleeps.

She is hoping to rise from all this and make something of herself, when she gets caught up in the murder of a rich tourist.

This is James Dean and Tennessee Williams, and we might have met the characters before. But the story is new, and it’s crying out to be turned into a film. I loved it!

Bookwitch bites #76

As always, the Carnegie shortlist took me by surprise. Mainly by appearing. I’m not saying they picked the wrong books. One year I will have my diary totally sorted as to the when and how regular news and longlists and shortlists will appear. But not yet, obviously.

David Almond, Lissa Evans, Sonya Hartnett, Ali Lewis, Andy Mulligan, Patrick Ness, Annabel Pitcher and Ruta Sepetys are the lucky ones for 2012, although eventually one of them will prove luckier still. Lets’ see if I can sense something… It’ll be Patrick Ness. He’s pretty unstoppable.

Along with my own minor complaints of having too many iffy books thrown at me (as though a review here would really make or break a book!), I am also assumed to be either Derek Landy or some of my other interview subjects. I’m not. I’m me.

But at least I’m not Arthur, doing people’s homework. (After the junior school summer project back in the mid 1990s, when the Resident IT Consultant and I really excelled at helping with, well, with something, we don’t do it so much.) I really loved this piece on Meg Rosoff’s blog, which I understand she has borrowed from somewhere else. More Arthurs should be doing this. With belated thanks to James Thurber, who was very funny.

It’s the 1st of April (at least it is here and now for me, and don’t bother telling me if it isn’t for you), so let’s continue with more funny. I am reasonably certain this came courtesy of Sara Paretsky. It seems quite a while ago, too, now that I look carefully.

Dog and psychiatrist

Presumably I wouldn’t be here doing this, if I didn’t have access to free speech. I think I probably still have free speech. Although, certain things make you wonder. I’ll leave you with Statler and Waldorf. They know why you should support Amnesty International, because there are places that are far worse. It would be nice if they got better, and it would be quite nice if we didn’t join them by losing what we’ve got.

Finding out about Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys

And last but not least in this interview relay event comes Ruta Sepetys, of the interesting sounding name. Her looks are so Baltic that people stop her in the street. In the interview you can find out the importance of her aunt Ruta’s cough, and she also admits to having intended leaving almost everyone dead at the end of her book, Between Shades of Gray. So, typically Nordic noir instincts, then.

Ruta Sepetys signing at PuffinAnd you will also learn the importance of finding out your family’s history. Especially those skeletons in the closet. We all have them, I suspect.

Three Puffins and the Anna Perera interview

It’s been a while. Sorry.

I’d like to say that I’ve agonised long and carefully about how to do my Puffin trio justice, but that would be almost completely untrue. I’m simply late. Too much got in the way.

But I did know that I wanted to publish all three interviews with Anna Perera, Morris Gleitzman and Ruta Sepetys close together. After all, they sort of came in to see me in the Tardis (room) in relay fashion. It’s been busy around here, and finding a gap large enough wasn’t easy.

I’m aware that I didn’t show you a photo from the panel discussion with Claire Armitstead, but now that I have stolen a photo from ‘somewhere’, here are all four.

The Puffin panel - Ruta Sepetys, Morris Gleitzman, Anna Perera and Claire Armitstead

And from there straight on to the Anna Perera interview. I’m guessing Anna was first because she wanted to get me over and done with. Quite understandable.

It was good to meet someone new to me, and interesting to learn the background to The Glass Collector.

Between Shades of Gray

Is it a train wreck mentality that draws me to WWII novels? Not quite ‘the gorier the better’, but there is a certain something about the dreadfulness of the war. Between Shades of Gray has plenty of that, and it’s also a real ‘journey book’ which Ruta Sepetys has written.

It has a map to begin with. Two maps, even. The first map shows the journey Lina and her family make, starting in Lithuania and ending by the sea north of the Arctic Circle in Siberia. It made me wonder what happened when they reached the sea. The second map is a timeline showing where they were and when. Again, the reader wonders what happened when they got to Trofimovsk.

This novel is not about Jews, which makes for a ‘fresh’ angle on the awfulness of WWII. The fate of the three Baltic states is far less well known than much of the rest of Europe. They were sort of left in the middle between the Germans and the Russians, with each taking a bite when it suited them.

Here it is the Russians who have taken over Lithuania, the country closest to Poland, and they want to move the ‘local troublemakers’, usually the educated middle classes. They round them up and put them on goods trains on a journey through their own vast country, just to get rid of them. This is what happens to 15-year-old Lina and her younger brother Jonas and their mother Elena. The father is taken separately.

Lina has no idea why this is happening, making it harder still. She is a talented artist, and spends the journey drawing, both to pass the time and to record where they are going. They suffer starvation, squalor and death, but there is also bravery and friendship.

After a month they arrive at a labour camp in Siberia where they stay all winter. Then they are moved on again. Unlike many other journey books there is little relief in this one, and the reader almost comes to appreciate potato peel as something good to eat, just like the Lithuanians had to.

There is romance, and some hope. But mostly it’s despair and suffering. Cold. And death.

At least the end is nowhere near as bad as Ruta originally planned it.

They hear voices

That’s what they do. And then they write books.

There was talk of body fluids and worse. Ruta Sepetys, who’s just had her first book, about starving people in Siberia, published, described her style of writing as ‘projectile vomiting’ and later told of her editor advising her to ‘watch her gratuitous defecation’.

Although Morris Gleitzman said that if necessary ‘let there be defecation’.

Morris Gleitzman, Grace; Anna Perera, The Glass Collector; Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

The witch went to London yesterday for a panel discussion at Puffin HQ between Morris Gleitzman, Anna Perera and Ruta Sepetys, and kept in beautiful order by Claire Armitstead of the Guardian. I knew I liked her!

Before the panel Puffin invited some great book bloggers to a private meeting with the three authors, so there was the old witch in the company of five bloggers all of an age to be my Offspring. Luckily for them they are not.

And before that, I found myself standing in reception at Penguin, saying I was there to see Jayde Lynch. ‘And me’ whispered Anna Perera at my side. She and Ruta had got there before me and Morris arrived soon after, and they were all there because they’d been told they had to see me.

That’s what I like!

Morris Gleitzman

Anna and I agreed that Morris is much taller in real life than he looks in his photos. I had imagined someone short. Maybe I just thought Morris had to be the same size as his pal Eoin Colfer?

The Tardis Room

Jayde came for us and I was taken to the Tardis Room, which wasn’t as big inside as it might have been. But nice enough anyway. I decided on pot luck and they sent Anna in first for our ten minutes (who said I’m greedy?). Next came Morris, who could have talked for much longer than his ten minutes, followed by Ruta. As if by agreement none of them sat down in the same place as the others. I’d like to think of them waiting – NCIS style – to be interrogated and exchanging information on how horrible I’d been and what I wanted to know.

Anna Perera

Down to the 6th floor for the blogger gathering. I’ve only come across Jenny of Wondrous Reads previously, but had checked the others out before I came. She was there for Morris. Mostly, anyway. As luck would have it, he came and sat down next to her, so that was good.

The others were Sarah Gibson from Feeling Fictional and Carly Bennett of Writing from the Tub. Dwayne Halim – who is a girl – from Girls Without a Bookshelf, and last but not least Rhys of Thirst for Fiction. All very young, as I said. Lots of discussion with the authors, and a lack of agreement on e-readers.

I’m having second thoughts about Twitter now, as it seems Rhys was responsible for some successful tweeting on behalf of Ruta’s book. Morris can’t possibly tweet, as he is unable to write less than 30,000 words on anything.

The authors interviewed each other on writing technique, and Morris firmly believes in the ‘ late in and early out of scenes’ way of not dwelling too long on anything and becoming boring. And he plans meticulously. This is where Ruta’s projectile vomiting comes in.

Ruta Sepetys

People helped themselves to the books on the table, stuffing them into their choice of colour Puffin bags. I picked an orange one this time. And then on to the tenth floor, with ‘the best view in London.’ Ruta and I chatted on the way, and she was easily impressed by me actually having met Meg Rosoff. She’s got good taste.

Surprisingly I found Candy Gourlay during pre-panel drinks. Wrong publishing house, but she sneaked in to see Morris. They all love Morris. Hmm. The usual faces were there (along with their bodies, naturally). I took my life in my hands when stepping out onto the balcony thing in order to take photos of the Thames. I did it for you.

The Thames

Candy sat as close to Morris as possible, while I hid by the door in my usual fashion. And I apologise to my neighbour for my snacking. It was dinner time. Adele Minchin introduced everyone, and she made me think. She pointed out that children’s books are for children. I tend to forget they aren’t just for me.

Anna, Ruta and Morris introduced their books, and after some discussion about toilet topics, etc, it was question time. Nicholas Tucker in the audience kicked off with the comment that he felt there could be a need for counselling services after such hard punching topics. People disagreed for the most part, and maybe it is that we get softer with age. Children can be quite hard at times.

Minister Gove was mentioned, and we all felt that the three books we were there to talk about should be on his infamous list. Then we went one step better and decided the list should be much longer, if there is to be a list, which is silly in itself.

One hour can last a long time, but unfortunately last night the hour was the fast kind, so we found ourselves eating pizza slices and falafel before we knew where we were. The real fans queued up to have their books signed, with Candy getting in very early, thanks to her front row seat.