Shelf Control #329: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Published: 2016
Length: 221 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

While the Titanic and Lusitania are both well-documented disasters, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history is the little-known January 30, 1945 sinking in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German cruise liner that was supposed to ferry wartime personnel and refugees to safety from the advancing Red Army. The ship was overcrowded with more than 10,500 passengers — the intended capacity was approximately 1,800 — and more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 children, lost their lives.

Sepetys (writer of ‘Between Shades of Gray’) crafts four fictionalized but historically accurate voices to convey the real-life tragedy. Joana, a Lithuanian with nursing experience; Florian, a Prussian soldier fleeing the Nazis with stolen treasure; and Emilia, a Polish girl close to the end of her pregnancy, converge on their escape journeys as Russian troops advance; each will eventually meet Albert, a Nazi peon with delusions of grandeur, assigned to the Gustloff decks.

How and when I got it:

I have a paperback edition on my shelf, which I think I bought at a used book store at least 3 or 4 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

This book had so many great reviews when it came out! I remember reading newspaper reviews (all positive) at the time, plus so many bloggers talked about how powerful it is.

I’ve read one book by Ruta Sepetys before — Out of the Easy — set in 1950s New Orleans. I liked it, but not as much as I’d expected to, and while I’ve heard good things about other books by this author, I haven’t gotten around to exploring any other of her works.

I’m drawn to Salt to the Sea based on the premise — because yes, while I’m quite familiar with the Titanic and the Lusitania, before picking up this book, I’d never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff. There’s something so awful about ships sinking — the idea of it is absolutely terrifying to me, and the scale of this particular tragedy is so huge that it’s hard to comprehend.

I’m glad I stumbled across my copy of Salt to the Sea while thinking about what book to feature this week! It sounds like an emotional read, and I’m interested in the historical aspects as well as the stories of the individual characters.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
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Have fun!

Book Review: Out Of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Book Review: Out Of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy

In New Orleans in 1950, being the daughter of a prostitute is a guarantee that you’ll never amount to much. But 17-year-old Josie Moraine intends to change her fate. Raised more by the tough-but-loving brothel madam Willie than by her own careless mother, Josie is whip-smart and determined. A hard worker, Josie cleans the brothel each morning, brings Willie all the miscellaneous objects she finds along the way, then works in a bookshop alongside handsome Patrick before retiring to her small bedroom upstairs in the store.

Josie sailed through school, mostly friendless due to constant mocking and disdain about her mother, and is saving up for a college education, even though she realizes that the odds of actually attending college are not in her favor. Meanwhile, Josie knows everyone in the French Quarter and everyone seems to know her.

When two strangers enter Josie’s world, her life suddenly changes as she realizes that people can see the good in her and treat her with respect and kindness. But as Josie sets new goals for herself and starts planning an escape, her old life seems to hold her more and more tightly, and no matter how she struggles, she keeps getting sucked back down into the dirt and squalor of life in the Quarter.

The plot of Out of the Easy follows Josie’s fight to claim a new life for herself, as she deals with a murder investigation, abandonment, threats, and betrayal, extortion, loss, illicit propositions, and the glimmer of a chance at love.

That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

This is definitely not your typical young adult novel. Josie does not live in a world of black-and-white morals, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions. She’s dealing with the life she was dealt, and she really does pretty well for herself. How many seventeen-year-olds could live on their own, make their own way, deal with corruption every day without succumbing to it, and still dream of a better life?

The essence of life in the Quarter is sharply painted through the author’s descriptions of the sights, the smells, the sounds. There’s a grittiness and joy amidst the decadence and dirt, and the people in Josie’s world know how to live their lives to the fullest. Along the way, we meet servants, prostitutes, “information men”, and johns, and most are well-developed characters in their own right, making Josie’s world feel very lived in and real. Madam Willie is especially memorable, if a bit stereotypical, as the sharp-tongued, sharp-nailed businesswoman who scolds Josie yet loves her dearly and makes sure her destiny does not lie within the walls of a whorehouse.

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the writing style got in the way quite a bit. For me, it came down to the old writing advice of “show, don’t tell” — and I felt that there was just too much “telling” going on in Out of the Easy. The sentence structure throughout was repetitive, with declarative sentences telling events in line after line:

I took a deep breath and stepped back. I started humming. Charlie stopped bucking. I continued humming and once again picked the towel up off the floor. I walked behind Charlie… I applied pressure to his forehead… I heard the key in the lock…

Those are lines from a page chosen at random, but I can literally open to any page and find the same pattern of noun/verb, noun/verb, noun/verb throughout the entire book. And yet, despite the focus on action sentences, much of the action happens “off-screen” or is resolved within a page or two. We find out through other characters’ conversations about a key development with Josie’s mother; we are introduced to a major threat to Josie — and then see it easily resolved within a chapter. Something about the writing style just left me feeling unsatisfied — it felt more like reading a journal about a set of events rather than being allowed to enter a fictional world and be swept away by it.

And yet, there are some lovely smaller moments. Early on, Josie goes to a rich-people’s party Uptown, and notices a table filled with family photos in sterling frames:

I stared at the pictures. If someone meant something to you, you put their photo in a silver frame and displayed it, like these. I had never seen anything like it. Willie didn’t have any framed photos. Neither did Mother.

Toward the end of the story, it’s significant that Josie does at that point finally have a few cherished photos in frames of their own. It’s a small moment, one presented without much fuss, but it gives a hint at the power of the story and the writer’s ability to create emotions and impact out of a few low-key details.

Overall, I enjoyed Out of the Easy and have no hesitation about recommending it. Still, I felt that there was a certain momentum lacking in the story and in the depth of the characters. I found the setting unusual and interesting, and the characters are a memorable and flavorful bunch, but there was something in the writing that kept me at a distance from the heart of the story throughout the book — so that ultimately, although I was interested, I walked away feeling unsatisfied. I suppose I expected more; what I got was fine, but it just wasn’t as strong or as deep as I’d hoped.

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Out of The Easy

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

From Amazon:

It’s 1950 and the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie Moraine wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

Why do I want to read this?

I’ve come across a few reviews of this new YA release recently — all raves. The New Orleans setting sounds wonderful. I like that the book is set in 1950; so much of the New Orleans fiction that I’ve read has been set in the 18th or 19th century. I’m interested in seeing what life in mid-20th century New Orleans would have been like for a young woman, particularly one growing up in such difficult circumstances. Out of the Easy sounds like a terrific mix of mystery, scandal, and coming-of-age tale. Yet another book that I can’t wait to read!

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!