Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys (3/5)

13 Jan

I think this was the first Sepetys book I added to my TBR. I ended up reading Out of the Easy first and I’m still trying to figure out if I would have liked this more or less if I’d read it first. They were very different and I think I’m going to say Sepetys has gotten better. This was a fine first novel, but I think she had more to develop.

Cover image via Goodreads

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Other books by Sepetys reviewed on this blog:

Out of the Easy

Summary from Goodreads:

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. Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.

I kept waiting for something more in this book. It was a horrible story of suffering and oppression, a lot like reading Survival in Auschwitz or visiting the Anne Frank museum. I had no idea that these things happened under Russian rule to the Baltic states. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read this book and learned more about human history and human cruelty that cannot be repeated. However, I read this story as a piece of fiction and on that front, it failed me. Lina and Jonas were very flat characters to me. There wasn’t much to their personalities. As such, I would have expected this to be a more plot-driven novel, but there wasn’t a lot of plot to it because the main theme was survival. The ending was a disappointment to me. After building so long, the last chapter/epilogue summed up everything very quickly. I didn’t feel it was an adequate ending for such a long build-up. It didn’t work for me as a story. Had it been a non-fiction memoir, I wouldn’t have had this problem, but I’m looking at it as fiction.

Their mother, Elena, was the most fleshed-out character to me. She did a lot of things that weren’t logical or in her best interest because she was a good person and wanted to set a good example for her children. It bothered me a little that she was always giving away food to others when I wanted her to keep herself and her children safe more than anything. But I realize she saw the humanity in everyone and saw survival as a group effort. She was a good character and went against the grain of the others which made her stand out.

Andrius was my favorite character. He had to go through a lot more emotionally than Lina and I was glad to know he somehow had a happy ending of some kind. Knowing that something had happened to his mother, I think he felt a sense of needing to be a man at a young age. At the same time, being a man would have meant he was separated from his mother and he had to submit to his mother’s care of him by pretending that he was mentally handicapped. When he thought he was out of the woods, his mother has to defile herself to save him. He was emasculated from a young age and I think his relationship with Lina was a saving grace for him when he needed it. There was a lot more depth to him than I felt in many other characters.

These characters were not easy to relate to. Their life situation was very extreme and the book focused on survival. I’m fortunate not to have ever lived in a survive-or-die situation. The things that tied them back to their earlier life like their father and Lina’s art were relatable, but they were such a small portion of the story that I found it harder to connect with the characters.

Ruta Sepetys
Image via the Between Shades of Gray website

The time in the Russian work camp was the most interesting to me. Getting to it was a bit repetitive and the Arctic camp was dreary and you knew it was going to go on forever. But the Russian camp was interesting. There was a power dynamic between the prisoners and the guards that had to be developed and overcome and I appreciated how it was played out. I liked Kretzsky’s development as well. He was clearly torn between pity and hate and fluctuated believably. I could see that he was trying to help and it bothered me at times that Lina couldn’t see it.

The last part, the Arctic camp, was a bit too much for me. It was so dreary and depressing that I disengaged from the story. When it didn’t have a definitive ending, leaving it up to the reader to imply years of suffering, I was even more frustrated. I felt like the book needed a different epilogue, a chance for Lina, Jonas, and Andrius to have a respite, a moment to appreciate what they finally got away from. The open ending didn’t sit well with me.

The audiobook was narrated by Emily Klein. I have mixed feelings about her narration. I thought she gave good voices to the mix of characters and expressed their concern, desperation, and compassion well. However, I think her portrayal of Lina was a bit mixed. Many times, she seemed younger than she was because of the innocence Klein put into her voice. I felt Jonas existed to show a loss of innocence but Lina was old enough that her transformation from child to a woman should have been less of an extreme but Klein made it seem very drastic.

I will always be impressed with human endurance. But when it happens at the hands of other humans, it’s a tragedy. This book shows us that the atrocities of World War II were more pervasive than we sometimes realize and it opened my eyes to a tragedy I didn’t know about. People will endure horrible things and their stories come to light to share these amazing and horrible stories but we have to be ready to listen and react to make sure they never happen again.

Writer’s Takeaway: The ending was my biggest issue with this book. I have a book that jumps twenty years in the end and I’m very careful to have an arc for the characters that’s mostly complete before the time jump. I didn’t feel that the characters in this book had an ending before the epilogue. Their story never ended and it didn’t feel like a complete book to me. I wish we’d gotten a scene of Jonas and Lina returning home or Lina and Andrius being reunited to give those characters closure because the book felt too open-ended to me.

Enjoyable but with an unsatisfying ending. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | ReadersCornerBlog
Between Shades of Gray | Sarah’s Soviet History Blog
Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys | Lorannkay
Week 3: Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys | Once Upon a Bookshelf
Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys | A Page of Heaven

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (3/5)

9 Jan

This book rounded out my unintentional jail series. While none of the speakers in the book went to jail, Michael being released from prison was a major focus of the book so I think it should qualify. I think this is the last in my mini-series but we’ll see. My book club has a knack for prison books lately.

Cover image via Goodreads

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Summary from Goodreads:

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There was something in it that just didn’t click with me. I’m not sure if it was the audio or the text. I liked the characters and I thought Leonie was especially well described. I think it was the elements of magical realism that were just a bit too much for me (similar to my complaints with The Mortifications). I liked the plot and the way Kayla, Jojo, and Leonie interacted, but when Jojo and Leonie started seeing people, I was a little too skeptical to be swept away. I did like the family unit that was picked apart in this book. Leonie was not the ideal daughter but in her mind, she was still a good mother like her mother had been to her. Having Jojo’s perspective and getting to see what he thought about his mother created good contrast.

Ward created very real characters. The ways she described the characters addicted to drugs was especially powerful. You felt bad for them, they couldn’t help their addictions. The faults in child-rearing and absenteeism were explained away and weren’t their fault. It helped you see how an addict can be out of control and how they don’t view themselves as at fault. Leonie is both sympathetic and culpable which makes the reader struggle with how to feel about her.

Jojo was my favorite character. He came off as much older than he was because of the rough environment he was brought up in and how he had to deal with having a mother who was absent so often. The way he spoke to Kayla was learned from his grandparents who taught him to be a man and a father much too young. Pop was put in a hard place when it came to Jojo and I think he did a great job raising him to be a smart and sensitive boy.

I didn’t relate well to any of the characters and I think that’s what kept me from enjoying the book more. I’m fortunate not to have any addicts in my life that I could compare with Leonie. I’ve never had someone close to me go to jail, either. I’m lucky not to have any severe racists in my family like Big Joseph. I’ve never seen ghosts. The only part that felt somewhat relatable was the long-distance feeling between Leonie and Michael. Their time apart reminded me a bit of when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were living in different states. The way you feel when you see someone you love after so long can’t be compared to many other emotions.

Jesmyn Ward
Image via The Guardian

Leonie’s story was my favorite which surprised me. I didn’t think I’d have a lot of sympathy for the drug-addicted mother but I did. I felt bad for her when she’d see her brother and felt guilty for loving Michael because of his relation to her brother’s killers. I liked how she tried to use her mother’s teachings to help Kayla when she was sick. I felt bad for her that she thought she needed to move drugs to pay for the gas to get her boyfriend from jail. She struck a sympathetic chord with me I didn’t expect and I really liked her in the end.

A lot of Leonie and Jojo’s stories involved the people they saw. The ghosts, you may say. I didn’t like it. I could deal with Leonie seeing her dead brother when she was high, but Jojo seeing his grandpa’s old friend was a bit too much for me. I didn’t like that getting his grandpa’s hard past to light was such a big moment for the book, I thought it took the focus too much away from Jojo and I wanted to focus on him more because he was such an interesting character.

The audiobook was narrated by three people: Rutina Wesley, Chris Chalk, Jr., and Kelvin Harrison. If I’m being honest, I couldn’t tell a difference between the two male narrators, so I can’t say much about their narrations. Wesley was very good. I wonder how much her reading affected my sympathy for Leonie. She gave great weight to Leonie’s voice and made her more sympathetic. She didn’t sound like the stereotypical drug addict. She was profound and philosophical, not things I would normally associate with someone in Leonie’s place. I wanted to hug her so badly!

The role of family in the character’s life was complicated. Pop was more of a father to Jojo than his biological father and his paternal grandfather wanted nothing to do with him. Michael and Leonie weren’t married but they were more important to each other than either of their blood relatives. Leonie’s inability to be a mother tore a rift in her family and Michael wasn’t sure how to fix it. By the end, I wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Writer’s Takeaway: There’s no denying that the writing in this book was incredible. I might not have liked all the elements Ward used in it, but the lyricism of her writing and the similies she wrote were amazing. I want my writing to feel as rich as this. You understood how the characters felt and the well of emotions they were struggling to keep bottled for the whole book. The anger and frustration in them were really well done.

I liked the writing, but not the story as much. Three out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward | Savidge Reads
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward | Intellectus Speculativus
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing – TLS | Nothing is Lost

WWW Wednesday, 8-January-2020

8 Jan

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: I’m moving forward steadily with Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley but no major jumps. I like having one book on the craft of writing going so I’ll keep pushing forward with this one to keep me motivated to write and submit.
My buddy-reader and I are having dinner tonight to talk about the next chunk of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I’m excited to move forward with this one again, I’m really enjoying it and it’s killing me to keep stopping before I find out what’s happened.
I’ve made better progress with Colombiano by Rusty Young than I thought I would. This is a long one to be sure and it will stay on this list for a long time. It’s given me goosebumps a few times already but I like where it’s going and I think Young has created a great character with Pedro.
I ran around the library on Saturday looking for my next book and finally decided on American by Day by Derek B. Miller. I adored Norwegian by Night and I’m excited to revisit Sigrid for a new adventure. I’m hoping to speed through this one as I’m excited for some book club selections and interlibrary loans!

Recently finished: I just adored Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I kept staying up late and ignoring responsibilities and social obligations to read this wonderful novel. I’m so glad I got to hear Lee speak last year because having her conversation in my head when I was reading this was incredible and I wish I could hear her speak again because I would get more out of the conversation. Five out of Five Stars, a great way to start 2020!

Reading Next: I’m still planning on Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy E. Turner for an audiobook but it might be a while until I get there.
I put in an interlibrary loan request for The Running Man by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King). This was recommended to me years ago and I’ve put it off because it needed an ILL but I’m still working to catch up on my reading list and this will be a great next step.


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Writing Check In- January 2020

7 Jan

I’ve been wanting to dedicate more time to writing. My husband had the suggestion of making a monthly feature to talk about my writing and how it’s going. It helps keep me honest(ish) and lets you all know when my masterpiece will be released to the world!

A short but important update here. I’m so glad to say that I finally submitted my manuscript! I’m not going to say where, but I looked up this agency and followed them for quite a while before I decided to submit to them. They’ve had it for a few weeks but I know with the holiday that it might be a while before I’ll hear anything back. I have another agency picked out to submit to next and I’m just getting my submission requirements ready to send over to them. I hope to get this up to five soon and then wait for some responses before I decide what to do next.

My NaNo is sitting around, awaiting the time when it will get torn apart and edited. I think there needs to be a subplot that I’m not ready to put together and I’m still trying to find. The book moves really fast because the main plot is the only thing I was concentrating on when I wrote it and I realized it wasn’t enough when I finished the plotline before 50,000 words. I’ll keep thinking about my characters and more layers that could be added to them. I’m sure something else will come to me.

So it’s submissions and editing in my near future. Not overly exciting but I’m looking forward to doing some solid editing again and having more of a plan around it this time than I did for my 20s novel.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

2019 in Books

6 Jan

I read 62 books in 2019. My goal was 52 so I’ve exceeded it by 10! I wasn’t expecting that, especially after missing it by four last year. I’m going to go for 55 in 2020. I know all the long bike rides training for my IronMan 70.3 were a winning contribution. I know I’ll be training for a shorter race, but my longer commute should make it possible.

I read 22,051 pages. This is the fourth year in a row I’ve increased my pages read! I’m really happy with this and I know it goes along with having a high number of books this year.

The shortest book I read/listened to was Ajax Penumbra 1969. This was more of a novella so no surprise there. I could have listened to the whole thing in one long bike ride session! The longest book I read (or listened to) was A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. Again, no surprise. That thing was long! I was glad to get through all those disks. I’m going to have to try to get a digital copy of the next audiobook because it’s going to just get worse from here. This was also the most popular book I read. Again, no surprise here!

My average rating was a 3.6, a tenth lower than last year and the same as 2018. A lot of books got four stars from me this year. Here’s how my ratings skewed this year:

5 Stars: 6
4 Stars: 29
3 Stars: 24
2 Stars: 3

I’m a bit surprised at how many three star ratings I’ve given. Maybe I was a bit harsher this year. Though I did find I was a bit blase about more than a few books this year.

Thanks for taking a look at stats with me! If you’ve been here a while, you know I love numbers and book-related numbers are the best.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Challenge Update, December 2019

2 Jan

I’ve been trying to catch up on reviews all month. And I’m almost there! No, really, I am! You can look at my progress at any time on my challenge page.

Books finished in December:

The Maximum Security Book Club // Mikita Brottman (4/5)
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue // Mackenzi Lee (5/5)
Sing, Unburied, Sing // Jesmyn Ward (3/5)
Between Shades of Grey // Ruta Sepetys (3/5)

I’m so close to catching up. I guess that’s the advantage of being in the middle of several long books right now.

When Are You Reading? Challenge

12/12
DONE! I wrapped up with Gentleman’s Guide this month and absolutely loved it. I don’t like pushing the challenge right until the end like this, but it felt so good to wrap up in December and I’m ready to go for it again starting in January.

Goodreads Challenge

62/52
I’m so awesome.

Book of the Month

No one should be shocked here. I wrote a ballad to this book in a review on Tuesday so go check that out if you’re wondering why. I absolutely adored The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. I’m hoping to read the sequel soon.

Added to my TBR

Only down one to 65. December tends to be bad for the TBR with so much gift-giving.

Personal Challenge

I’m gearing up again to track personal goals here. This is a great way to keep me accountable and to tell you about me outside the wide world of books.

  • Finish 70.3 Half Ironman: DONE!
  • Attend six weddings: DONE!
  • Finish a weather blanket: I’m caught up to Friday so I’m going to call being less than a week behind a complete success and celebrate this one as DONE!
  • Write: What a great year for this. Not only did I finish NaNo, but I SUBMITTED MY MANUSCRIPT TO AN AGENT! Yes, after editing for three years, I finally hit send. Now I plan the waiting game (and submit to more while I wait). I’m ready for 2020, bring it on!
  • See my friends more: I’ll call this a win overall. I was much more social and made a lot of new friends in 2020 that I’ll hold close for a long time to come. December was filled with lots of good friends so I ended this on a high note to be sure.

How are your challenges going so far? I hope you’re off to a good start. If you love historical fiction, give some thought to my challenge for 2020, it’s fun!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

The 2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge Starts Today!

1 Jan

Happy New Year! And it’s also WWW Wednesday. What an amazing day. Do you know what makes it even better? Today is the first day of the 2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge!

The challenge is to read 12 books, one from each of the below time periods. The books can either take place in the time period or be written in it. The reader has the final say on if a book qualifies for the time period.

  • Pre 1300
  • 1300-1499
  • 1500-1699
  • 1700-1799
  • 1800-1899
  • 1900-1919
  • 1920-1939
  • 1940-1959
  • 1960-1979
  • 1980-1999
  • 2000-Present
  • The Future

If you’re interested in participating, please let me know and I’ll add a link to your blog or tracking page on the page for this year’s challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

WWW Wednesday, 1-January-2020 (Happy New Year!)

1 Jan

Welcome to WWW Wednesday! This meme was formerly hosted by MizB at A Daily Rhythm and revived here on Taking on a World of Words. Just answer the three questions below and leave a link to your post in the comments for others to look at. No blog? No problem! Just leave a comment with your responses. Please, take some time to visit the other participants and see what others are reading. So, let’s get to it!IMG_1384-0

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Note: For users of Blogspot blogs, I’m unable to comment on your posts as a WordPress blogger unless you’ve enabled Name/URL comments. This is a known WordPress/Blogspot issue. Please consider enabling this to participate more fully in the community. 


Currently reading: A lot of unusual lunches last week so I’m still making slow progress with Wild Ink by Victoria Hanley. I’ll be fine taking this one through the new year.
I’m still in love with Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I’m picking it up every second I get because I’m just adoring every second of it. I didn’t know it was possible to make a 600-page book move so fast but wow. I’m really in awe.
Nothing further with my buddy read of The Dutch House by Ann Patchett yet. We’re meeting next week to talk so more to come soon.
I had yet another change of plans for my audiobook. I was offered a free audiobook for review of Colombiano by Rusty Young and downloaded it to my phone, figuring I’d get to it eventually. I didn’t realize how long the book was. At almost 700 pages, the file size is slowing down my phone! I’m deleting the files as I go (there are 164) to hopefully give my phone some more battery life.

Recently finished: I flew through Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys which was welcome with so many other long books on the go. I liked my first Sepetys book first but this was still enjoyable. It will be a while before I get to a review just because I’m so backlogged but I look forward to putting more thought into how this book made me feel.

A few book reviews to round out the year! On Monday I reviewed The Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman. I enjoyed the book a lot and appreciated Brottman’s focus on the men instead of the books. I gave it Four out of Five Stars.
I also reviewed The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. I absolutely adored this book. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for something I would enjoy that much. I was just looking to fulfill a time period for my reading challenge. This was a welcome surprise and I gave it a full Five out of Five Stars.

Reading Next: It almost seems silly, but I’m going to keep saying I plan to listen to Sarah’s Quilt by Nancy E. Turner next. I’m in the middle of so many books right now that it almost feels like bad luck to guess what I’ll finish first but I always seem to move quickly on audio so I’ll put my bets here.


Leave a comment with your link and comment (if you’re so inclined). Take a look at the other participant links in the comments and look at what others are reading.

Have any opinions on these choices?

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Presenting: The When Are You Reading? Challenge 2020

31 Dec

Yes, it’s a little late, but that’s always better than never. I’m so excited to announce the 2020 When Are You Reading? Challenge! My husband finished the beautiful image this morning. Isn’t it great?

I hope you’ll consider joining me for the 2020 edition of this challenge! I’m going to use the same format as last year. I think the change in time periods was effective and I’d like to give it another go.

The challenge is to read 12 books, one from each of the below time periods. The books can either take place in the time period or be written in it. The reader has the final say on if a book qualifies for the time period.

  • Pre 1300
  • 1300-1499
  • 1500-1699
  • 1700-1799
  • 1800-1899
  • 1900-1919
  • 1920-1939
  • 1940-1959
  • 1960-1979
  • 1980-1999
  • 2000-Present
  • The Future

I’ll be getting pages for the challenge set up today. Expect a few more posts about it this week and GET EXCITED! This challenge has been a great way to make sure I’m reading historical fiction from a variety of time periods. I hope you’ll consider joining me.

If you are participating, please let me know and I’ll include a link to your tracking page or blog on the page for this year’s challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (5/5)

31 Dec

I’d seen this book around so when I needed a final book to fill in the 1700s of the When Are You Reading Challenge 2019, this seemed like an easy pick. It was even better that it was on audio. I was not expecting to love this book as much as I did. I fell in love with it. The narrator was great and Monty was amazingly annoying/relatable/pitiable all at once. It was incredible and I can’t wait to read more by Lee.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Montague Siblings #1) by Mackenzi Lee

Summary from Goodreads:

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

I absolutely loved this book. It was everything I love about historical fiction and everything I adore in YA all at once and it was amazing. I loved the depiction of Europe and the Grand Tour. I loved how Lee addressed the portrayal of black and gay characters. I even loved Felicity as much as she was annoying in Monty’s eyes. I wanted to hate Monty with every fiber of my being but I adored him. He was so vulnerable that I felt bad for him even when he was at his worst. Lee created an amazing cast of characters and I won’t soon forget it.

These characters were amazing. Percy and Monty alone could have made a book out of their romance. Pairing it with an adventure was exactly what I love. Felicity was a strong woman when strong women weren’t appreciated. Percy had an illness no one could cure. And Monty was struggling with homosexuality in a time when it was illegal. They all had an issue to deal with on their own and together there were amazingly flawed and fun to read about.

Despite some initial revulsion, I ended up loving Monty. (I feel like I have to say immediately it’s not because of his sexuality so please keep reading before roasting me.) When I first started the book, I thought Monty narrating was going to ruin the whole thing for me. He was just so pompous! He acted like nothing could touch him and he was so much better than everyone and it got under my skin fast. It’s a credit to Lee’s storytelling that I learned to love him. I learned that his bravado was a way of trying to attract Percy and his humor a way of deflecting the pain he carried with him. As he opened up about his past and true feelings, I saw him as the true and flawed person he was and I fell in love with the character. Now I hope he narrates future novels because I’d love to learn more about him.

I think Monty’s bravado ended up being relatable. I remember being a hormonal teenager and wanting to show off to impress a boy. I remember being impressed by a boy showing off. It was one of the most natural teenage things I think Monty could have done. The only difference was the time period he was in and the level of society he embarrassed himself at. That I wouldn’t have been capable of in high school.

Mackenzi Lee
Image via HarperCollins

I liked the time the party was in Spain. Yes, it’s partially because I speak Spanish and visited Barcelona last year. But I think it was a really good plot development time as well. Felicity became much more of a team member while they were there and Monty had to learn how to stay a bit calmer than he was used to. He had to be subtle. I liked how they snuck into prison as well. That seemed really risky but also calculated at the same time and I appreciated what they were able to do.

Ther scene at Versailles was my least favorite. While it was important and had a lasting impact on the plot, it seemed a bit over the top and didn’t give me a great first impression of the characters. I didn’t like Monty yet at this point and I found myself rolling my eyes a lot.

My audiobook was narrated by Christian Coulson and he was fan-freaking-tastic. He gave Monty an amazing voice with layers of sarcasm, woe, and anger that were just perfect. I can’t imagine reading this without having Coulson’s voice in my head. He was perfect in every way I can describe.

All of the characters had to pretend to be someone they weren’t. Felicity had to pretend she was a lady when she wanted to be a doctor. Percy had to pretend he was well when he was ill. Monty pretending to be straight when he was bisexual was hard for him because he felt he could only recognize part of his affections. It took time for them all to come clean with each other about what they wanted and who they were. It’s hard to be yourself sometimes and it can be hard to accept someone for who they are. But when we do, it’s really beautiful and we can stop seeing people for their flaws and see them for their beauty.

Writer’s Takeaway: I feel like I need to try writing in first person after seeing how wonderfully Lee did it. Monty’s narration gave the book the voice it needed to tackle the internal demons that he was dealing with. The book would have fallen flat without Monty narrating. I haven’t been brave enough to try the first person yet but I’m starting to feel like it’s needed.

An amazing story with great characters. Five out of Five Stars.

This book fulfills the 1700-1799 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Challenge complete!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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