Starlight Reviews – Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray” & Sean McCollum’s “Joseph Stalin”



Starlight Reviews | Jorie's Reads by Starry Night Elf

Inspired by Kimba the Caffeinated the Book Reviewer’s Coffee Pot Reviews, Starlight Reviews groups two or more complimentary books for one concise review. While not necessarily an in-depth analysis, Starlight Reviews offers the Jorie’s Reads audience the gist of the books as well as my opinions.  

For the maiden voyage, here are Starlight Reviews for Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray and  Sean McCollum’s Joseph Stalin (A Wicked History) 

Summer is for Lovers
Between Shades of Gray 
by Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Penguin Group US
Publication date: Mar 22, 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
ISBN: 9781101476154
Source: HCPL Digital Media Catalog 

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Lithuanian fifteen-year old Lina Vilkas lives comfortably with her academic parents and younger brother, Jonas. Her family nurtures her artistic abilities. That changes, however, on June 14, 1941  when Soviet officers (NKVD)  invade her home,  taking Lina, her mother (Elena), and Jonas as prisoners. Separated from Lina’s father, the three find themselves sentenced to the Siberian work camps. Throughout this ordeal, Lina records this harrowing journey through illustration (although not seen in the novel).

Sepetys relates her tale in clear, understandable terms and I truly imagined Lina’s world. Also, Sepetys captured a teenage girl’s view quite well. However, this book loses a pearl due to the ending not tying up some significant loose ends.

Since the story centers around rather bleak, adult subjects, I strongly suggest that parents read this book before their younger, more impressionable kids pick up this book. While not gratuitous, this novel’s backdrop consists of genocide, violence, cruelty, and degradation.

RR - Orange  Rainbow Rating: Orange – Restricted from those under age 17 

The Ruin of A Rogue
Joseph Staling (A Wicked History Series)
by Sean McCollum
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication date: Sep 01, 2010
Genre: Biography
ISBN: 978-0531223550
Source: HCPL 

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Like other books in “A Wicked History Series,” this juvenile/young adult biography features:

– Opening quote by or about the featured villain/villainess
– Historical map, annotated with key locations from person’s life
– “A Wicked Web” featuring allies and enemies
– Historical photos and etchings
– Boxes with additional information
– Photo documentaries: six to eight pages of photos and captions telling the person’s life
– Timeline, glossary, additional sources
– Engaging narrative nonfiction written at a very accessible reading level (Goodreads)

Yet, this is a Twentieth Century villain. So, there’s no question as to whether Joseph Stalin was wicked. In this 128-page book, McCollum tells the life story of Joseph Stalin, from birth to death. McCollum tells of a post-Stalin event which portrays the depravity of Stalin – relating to some of those work (death) camps I read about in Between Shades of Gray. 

I found this biography accessible and easy to read. It took me longer to get through it because my dad decided to read it while I had it checked out. I liked getting the basics and not being bogged down by footnotes and details.

RR - Orange  Rainbow Rating: Orange – Restricted from those under age 17 

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Norman Itzkowitz & Enid A. Goldberg’s Genghis Khan : 13th-century Mongolian tyrant (A Wicked History)


Itzkowitz, N., & Goldberg, E. A. (2008). In Genghis Khan: 13th-century Mongolian tyrant. New York: Franklin Watts. 0531125963

When I searched online for a listing of “A Wicked History” Series, I discovered that the biography of Genghis Khan was one of the first. Disappointed that none of my local libraries had this one about Genghis Khan, I requested the item through interlibrary loan (ILL). Before reading this slim volume on the guy, I knew next to nothing about him – he was a scary man who still had the world talking, he left numerous descendants, and John Wayne, of all people, played Genghis Khan in a movie sans accent.

Genghis Khan was  born Temujin in the twelfth century on the harsh Mongolian Steppe. Here, many tribes duked it out constantly – fighting for survival and turf. His parents were the tough Yesugei and his kidnapped bride Hoelun. This was all but a dog eat dog world where the Mongols and others nomads of the treeless plain lived in yurts and eeked out an existence. When Yesugei died from a poisoned dish, Temujin and his family were left to fend for themselves. Where most perished, Temujin was scrappy and ornery enough to survive.

Temujin grew strong and conquered his world. His warriors maded up the best army and, with them, Temujin terrorized cities, raped and pillaged, rendered people homeless. He punished his enemies mercilessly.

However, Temujin became Genghis Khan (thought to mean “universal ruler”), a man also known for his loyalty and providence. He unified the clans and the tribes of the Steppe. Genghis Khan was even called religiously tolerant and he established a sort of pony express and even a written language.

Not much is certain about Genghis Khan; he permitted no one to paint his portrait and his grave site is unknown. A copy of The Secret History of the Mongols turned up in China in the 1880s.   This work depicts a son born in a bad situation, who pursued his own life ruthlessly.

Whether or not Genghis Khan was wicked seems to be an easy call for me. What do you think?

Three Out of Five Pearls

Quote:

The leaders of the Mongols said to the young Genghis Khan: We will make you khan . . . . And if we disobey your command, separate us from our families, from our ladies and wives. Separates us, and throw down our heads upon the ground! If we disobey you, exile us and throw us out into the wilderness.

– Excerpt from The History of the Life of Genghis Khan: The Secret History of the Mongols

Word Bank: (from the glossary of this book)

  • alliance – an agreement to work together
  • ally – a person or country that gives support to another
  • andas – in Mongol culture, friends who proved the closeness of their bond by drinking each other’s blood
  • ballista – a weapon that worked like a giant crossbow; it shot arrows that could break through the walls of buildings
  • Buddhist – a person who practices Buddhism, a religion based on the teachings of Buddha and practiced mainly in eastern and central Asia
  • caravan – a group of people traveling together
  • civilized – highly developed and organized
  • clan – an extended family group
  • descendant – a person’s child, grandchild, or other such relative on into the future
  • empire – a group of countries or regions that have the same ruler
  • exile – a situation in which one is forced to stay away from one’s homeland
  • firelance – a spear-like weapon with a tube containing gunpowder
  • Genghis Khan – Mongol words meaning “universal ruler”; Mongol leaders gave Temujin this title in 1206
  • khan – a Mongol word meaning ruler or leader
  • Muslim – someone who follows the religion of Islam, a religion based on the teachings of Muhammad
  • nomadic – wandering from place to place
  • ruthless – cruel and without pity
  • sable – a small animal that looks like a weasel; its soft brown fur is very valuable
  • sacred – holy, deserving great respect
  • scribe – a person who copies documents by hand
  • shaman – a person who communicates with the spirit world to help tell the future, control events, or cure the sick
  • steppe – treeless plains found in Asia
  • sultan – an emperor or ruler of some Muslim countries
  • tribe – a group of people who share the same ancestors and customs
  • Yasa – the code of law created by Genghis Khan
  • yoke – a wooden frame placed around a person’s neck to hold him or her prisoner
  • yurt – a circular tent made of felt stretched over a light, portable frame of branches

Places: Mongolia, China, Persia, Armenia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia

For more on Genghis Khan, please check out the following sites:

Zu Vincent’s Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia


Vincent, Z. (2009). Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia. New York: Franklin Watts. 0531207382

The first time I remember hearing the name “Catherine the Great” was as a child. Some art expo was in town and the theme dealt with her. Seeing the paintings of an older woman in eighteenth century getup, I judged her to be long gone. So, I asked my mom, “Who was she?” Mom told me how she was a Russian Empress. Soon after, one of the less official television networks ran a movie about Catherine the Great as a young woman. She was beautiful, her husband – Peter, was a tool, and Catherine and her lover Gregory Orlov pulled a coup for the empire.

With my recent introduction to A Wicked History series, I read Zu Vincent’s Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia. The cover shows an imperious Catherine with the word “Despot” spray-painted across her. Inside this book, I found a cunning young woman striving for survival, then power.

Born Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste of Anhalt-Zerbst in 1729, she was the daughter of Prussian Prince Christian August and Princess Johanna. Princess Johanna found the Prussian town dreary and wanted escape and she would use the young Sophie to do so.

Thus, at the fifteen year old Sophie and Princess Johanna arrived in Russia. Sophie sought the hand of Crown Prince Peter, a marriage of power, not love. His mother, Empress Elizabeth, liked Sophie, and soon, Sophie became Catherine and married Peter.  Peter couldn’t stand her and Elizabeth feared Catherine’s intellect. Catherine bid her time for nearly twenty years, enduring mistreatment and abuse by Elizabeth and Peter.

When Elizabeth died, Catherine, with the help of numerous others, overpowered her jerky husband’s power. To the amazement of all of Europe, Catherine lived a long life, ruling her adopted home of Russia.

An important question Vincent asks is “Was she wicked?” After reading this biography, let me know what you think.

Four out of Five Pearls

Quote:

The glory of the country is my own glory – to raise the Russian Empire to a degree of power above that of the other empires of Asia and Europe.

– Catherine the Great

Word Bank: (from the glossary of this book)

  • alliance – an agreement to work together
  • bureaucrat – an official in a governmental department
  • Cossacks – people of Southern Russia, Ukraine, and Siberia who were known for their independence and military skill
  • coup – a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power
  • empire – a group of countries or regions that have the same ruler
  • Enlightenment – a philosophical movement of the Eighteenth Century that emphasized the use of human reason to build a better world
  • khan – a ruler of Turkish or Tatar tribes during the time of Catherine the Great
  • open letter – a document that is addressed to a person but meant to be read by a wide audience
  • Protestant – a Christian who does not belong to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church
  • pustule – a small blister or pimple on the skin containing pus
  • Russian Orthodox – describing the major church of Christianity in Russia
  • scythe – a tool with a large, curved blade used for cutting crops
  • sovereign – the supreme leader of a country
  • steppe – a vast, treeless plain
  • sultan – an emperor or ruler of a Muslim monarchy
  • treason – the crime of betraying one’s country
  • tsar – the emperor, or “Caesar,” of Russia
  • tyrannical – ruling others in a cruel or unjust way

Places: Prussia, Russia, Constantinople, Poland, France, Great Britain

For more on Zu Vincent’s Catherine the Great: Empress of Russia, please check out the following links:

St. Thomas More School Media Center