I Must Betray You

In this stunning novel, Ruta Sepetys shines a light on an oft-overlooked period of history.

Book Review: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know I’m a huge Ruta Sepetys fan. I knew my library would purchase this book, but I still had to sit on my hands to keep from buying it on release day. As soon as my library had it available, I snapped it up.

Description

Romania, 1989. Seventeen-year-old Cristian Florescu keeps his dreams and thoughts hidden in a secret notebook he hides beneath the floorboards in his family’s tiny, State-owned apartment. In Nicolae Ceaușescu’s tyrannical communist dictatorship, Romanians aren’t free to dream, and such a notebook is a death sentence, if discovered.

Amidst the growing isolation and fear, the secret police offer Cristian two choices: become an informer and gain much-needed medicine for his sick grandfather, or face the consequences of his crime—possessing foreign currency. Cristian carves out a third option: use his position to undermine the most evil dictator in Eastern Europe.

Cristian risks everything to expose his country’s torment to the world, but he’s not the only informer in Romania. He’s not even the only informer in his own family.

Characters

Cristian describes himself as sarcastic and sharp, but in the totalitarian environment he lives in, that sarcasm rarely leaves his mouth. It hides on the pages of his notebook and in the depths of his thoughts. I wouldn’t label it sarcasm so much as poignant truths. His distaste for the government’s strictures creates tension with his need to protect his family—and the pretty girl in a neighboring building.

The other characters encompass a wide variety of reactions to tyranny—rebels, cowards, black market entrepreneurs, and the defeated, who live with no spark left in their eyes.

Plot

The plot moves at a heart-racing pace, following Cristian as he simultaneously informs on the American diplomat’s son while trying to communicate with the diplomat himself. The more he uncovers the truth, however, the more danger he is in. When revolution finally hits, Cristian learns the true cost of freedom.

Writing Style

 After reading a lot of sub-par free fantasy, this gem was a refreshing change. Ruta Sepetys is a master of mood and metaphor. The characters’ fear and tension come across in every word, and her prose is the perfect balance between efficient and artistic.

Conclusion

In this stunning novel, Ruta Sepetys shines a light on an oft-overlooked period of history. It’s easy to look at the tyrannies of the past and dismiss them as far-off tragedies, but these events happened relatively recently—a poignant reminder that evil has no expiration date. With varied and deeply human characters and a plot packed with intrigue, I Must Betray You is a must-read.


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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

Description (from Amazon)

“In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.”

Character

The Count, as he’s often referred to, is the kind of man everyone wants to befriend, but nobody would want to parent. One can tell that his youth was filled with mischief, and not even gray hair and joints that no longer like the Metropol stairs can dampen that spirit. What I liked most about him was that, though formerly an aristocrat, he treats everyone the same—from the barber to the seamstress to the hotel’s waiters, whose ranks he eventually joins. Seeing the Count adapt to his ever-changing circumstances was inspiring.

Plot

The plot meanders through many seemingly pointless side trips as the tumultuous events in the outside world impact the microcosm of the hotel. Eventually, the author tied these things together, giving them purpose within the broader storyline, but it demanded patience from the reader. I must confess that I almost didn’t finish. The plot is not well suited for the modern attention span, and the points it made were too subtle for a distracted reader.

Writing Style

The author’s writing style is really the only reason I kept reading. His prose is gorgeous, with creative descriptions that bring the story to life. The reader truly gets a feel for life in the Metropol.

Miscellaneous

Another strength of this book was the myriad of philosophical reflections sprinkled throughout the story. However, I was often too bogged down by the seemingly pointless side stories to appreciate them. Many of the more dramatic implications of the oppressive Russian regime were so subtly depicted that I nearly missed them.

Conclusion

If I were a generation older, I think I may have enjoyed this book more. As is, the subtle philosophy and meandering plot are not well suited to readers accustomed to the instant gratification offered by modern technology. This book is beautifully written, and it tells an inspiring story of resilience and resistance. I really want to love this book, but the best I can say is that I don’t regret finishing it, even if it took a bout of insomnia binge-reading to do it.


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The Baker’s Secret

The cover’s description is deceiving, but the incredible sensory details, realistic characters, and unique interactions between the villagers and between the villagers and the occupying soldiers keep the story engaging. I enjoyed this book, and not just because it’s about a baker.

Book Review: The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My friend handed me this book, knowing I’m obsessed with anything bread related. I’m also a huge WWII fiction fan, so this book couldn’t be more perfect for me.

Cover Description

June 5, 1944, on the Normandy coast of France

“In the dark days since the Germans invaded her country…Emma has silently, stealthily fought back. Each day, she receives an extra ration of flour to bake a dozen baguettes for the occupying troops. And each day, she mixes that precious flour with ground straw to create enough dough for two extra loaves, contraband bread that she shares with the hungry villagers. Under the cold, watchful eyes of armed soldiers, she builds a clandestine network of barter and trade that she and the villagers use to thwart their occupiers. But her gift to the village is more than these few crusty loaves. Emma gives the people a taste of hope—and the faith that one day the Allies will arrive to save them.”

Character

The cover’s description misleads the reader into thinking Emma is a rebel agent bent on destroying the enemy, striving for freedom. In reality, she is no rebel, and she certainly isn’t hopeful. She scoffs at God and insists the Allies will never come. Despite her pessimism, she is a captivating character, a survivor, driven by the need to take care of her grandmother, and by extension, the entire village. Without planning or even volunteering, she becomes the lifeline of the village. Toward the end, she remarks, “If you want to know your worth in this world, make a list of the people who will starve when you die.” (pg. 242). I appreciated her stalwart determination to keep going, a brilliant demonstration of the strength it takes just to get through another day of war.

The other characters are expected for a small town: fishermen, farmers, clergy men, etc. The author describes each character with great realism. Each develops his or her own attitude towards the war—from acclimation to outright rebellion. Even the occupying soldiers encompass a variety of personalities and behaviors.

Plot

The plot encompasses a short time period. It reminds me a bit of the show 24, where every hour-long episode was a literal hour in the character’s life. Emma gradually assumes more responsibility as the pressures of war starves her village. You can feel the weight of the occupation, how it slows every second to a grind. The interactions between the villagers, their different strategies for survival, and the constant threat of the occupying soldiers keep the tension strong despite the slower pace.

Writing Style

This is, above all else, a sensual book. The smells, tastes, sounds, and textures are so vividly described, I could practically taste the sawdust and hear the machine gun fire. The prose is detailed, but flowing, styled such that the reader empathizes with Emma’s pessimism.

The story stems mostly from Emma’s perspective, but the author slips into the other villagers’ heads often, and he doesn’t always signal the shift well. If I had one criticism, it would be that.

Conclusion

The cover’s description is deceiving. Emma’s perspective is one of consistent pessimism, and the plot moves at a slow grind that reflects the experience of the occupation. However, the incredible sensory details, realistic characters, and unique interactions between the villagers and between the villagers and the occupying soldiers keep the story engaging. Despite Emma’s pessimism, the book ends with hope, though it doesn’t downplay the horrors of war. I enjoyed this book, and not just because it’s about a baker.


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Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war.

As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

But not all promises can be kept.”

Characters

A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.

Plot

The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.

Other

I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.

Conclusion

You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.


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Haven’t read yet, but at this point, I’d buy anything she writes.


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