Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Audiobook Review: Historical Fiction Double-header

Sigh. There was a time when I reviewed everything I read. Then, I reviewed only what I really liked. Lately, I realized that I am not even doing that! I never reviewed two audiobooks that totally blew me away this summer. So here's a double review of two historical fictions not to be missed.

Both of these feature totally fictional characters set during a notable historical event, neither of which, I am embarrassed to admit, I had ever heard. But then, I always learn the most interesting things by reading literature for young people.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez. Unabridged audiobook on 10 compact discs, 12 hrs., 50 mins. Read by Benita Robledo and Lincoln Hoppe. Listening Library, 2016. 9780735289475. (Purchased)

Set in New London, Texas in 1937, where a deadly explosion  at a school killed scores of children, Out of Darkness tells the story of Naomi and Wash. Fifteen-year-old Naomi is Mexican and her five-year-old half-siblings are bi-racial. They've recently been summoned by Naomi's white stepfather to live as a family in New London. Her half-siblings mix easily but Naomi is immediately confronted with racial hatred aimed at Mexicans. All the boys in her high school make assumptions and all the girls hate her because of those assumptions compounded by her beauty and apparent disinterest. She does, reluctantly at first, become interested in Wash, an ambitious African American boy with college prospects. She and Henry, her step-father, share a terrible secret. Henry has supposedly repented and become a Christian, but with each passing day, his resolve waivers and Naomi finds herself the object of his advances. 

This just shredded my heart to bits. Nothing like listening to a book and knowing from disc one that lots of terrible things are going to happen. Evocative and layered, this elicited so many emotions-like falling in love with the characters and wanting to keep them safe; like the fury of unrelenting wrongs and injustice. This was one tough but powerful read. The audio performance was first-rate. The narration by new-to-me narrator, Benita Robledo was commanding. I will definitely be interested in listening to more of her performances. Lincoln Hoppe served as the voice of the "Greek Chorus." Highly recommended!

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Unabridged audiobook on 7 compact discs (8 hrs., 48 min.) Read by Jorjeana Marie, Cassandra Morris, Will Damron and Michael Crouch. Listening Library, 2016. 9780147525451. (Purchased)

Salt to the Sea is told from the points of view of four young people as the losing German army retreats from Russian forces across East Prussia. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse shepherding a group of refugees to Gotenhofan to attempt to gain passage on the ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. She encounters Emelia, a young Polish girl and Florian, a deserting German soldier. There's also the POV of Alfred, a delusional German Navy seaman who finds multiple ways of shirking his responsibility. Each hides secrets both tragic and dangerous. The chapters are short as the point of view shifts quickly from person to person. Be patient with the set-up for as the pieces of this puzzle begin to fit together, the suspense will prevent you from putting the book down (or, in my case, stop listening). So will the love you may be surprised to have for some of the characters. Even the secondary characters are so vividly drawn that I wept over some. 

I was unaware that the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustlaff was the worst maritime disaster in history. As she did in Between Shades of Gray, Ms. Sepetys brings a little known segment of World War II to vivid life. While all the characters are completely fictional, what happened to them in the book, really happened to refugees. 

The four performers did a wonderful job. Three of the four were new-to-me narrators. Cassandra Morris' performance as Emelia was particularly affecting. I'm not sure who voiced Alfred, but his portrayal was creepily smarmy as fitting Alfred. Great job. 

Both books will require a sophisticated reader for both structure and content with Out of Darkness being more appropriate to a high school reader. Out of Darkness won a Printz Honor in January and Salt to the Sea is getting some award buzz for the 2017 season.

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