Book Reviews | Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Being the true to form introvert that I am, books have always been something I’ve taken solace in when times were tough. They’ve made me laugh harder than you’d ever expect, they’ve made me sob uncontrollably, they’ve made me rethink my entire world view, and everything in-between. There’s something really special about the fact that some words on a page can evoke such an intense response from a reader, on so many different levels. I read more than most of the people I know, but I don’t feel like you need to read a lot in order to enjoy books and be absorbed in the stories that are waiting to be read. And because of that, I always recommend that my friends read book reviews before picking a book up, to get a feel for what they are reading. I am always quick to offer my thoughts on a book when anyone asks. Its so discouraging for people to pick up a book, only to find that it doesn’t suit them or isn’t an enjoyable experience, particularly for people that may not read often. That is why I’ve decided to share my thoughts on some of the books I read on this blog. I’ve never properly reviewed a book before, at least not through the written word, but I can assure you that all of the thoughts and feelings expressed in these reviews will be my own, and that they will ALWAYS be spoiler free, unless otherwise noted in the title of the post. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.

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“In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.” – Ruta Sepetys

Long story short, I loved this book. It was everything I wanted it to be and more. I rated it 4.5/5 stars. This book was thrilling, beautiful, gripping, and perfectly told. This was one of those books that stuck with me. I kept thinking about the story and the characters, well after the last page was finished. Ruta Sepetys has this way of embedding her words into your mind and almost compelling you to think about them, and that’s something I really appreciate in an author. Even more so in a historical fiction author. It’s quite easy for writers to get wrapped up in the research side of historical fiction, and some novels can start to get a bit fuzzy, bending itself into feeling more like a textbook than an enjoyable read, and I was thankful that this did not happen with Salt to the Sea. This book pulled you in, it told you the facts of the situation but it also made you feel them. I hadn’t learned much about the voyage of the Wilhelm Gustloff in school or otherwise, so this was something new for me. The real life events surrounding the Wilhelm Gustloff are incredibly tragic, and this book details them tastefully and beautifully, but it is not a depressing story. It doesn’t leave you feeling worn out and upset, even though the events are quite sad. Instead you feel a sense of love and are able to connect with the characters that Ruta has provided. The characters are incredible as well, not just on the character development side, which is fantastic, but just the range of characters is really special. There are a variety of characters of different ages and backgrounds, and you’re able to connect to all four of our main characters effortlessly, and view the story from so many different angles.

World War II is a topic that is discussed a lot in historical fiction novels, but this book sets itself apart. It touches on events that are less prominent in the genre, and it pulls you in deep, into the inner workings of the characters within the story, in a way that most other novels of its kind simply haven’t succeeded in. Once you’ve closed this book, you will cry. You will smile. You will feel like you’ve learned something. This book will impact you in a way you may not expect it to, and you will be eagerly awaiting Ruta Sepetys’ next book just as much as the rest of us are.

I Fell in Love with Austin, Texas on the Fourth of July

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Sometimes you visit a city, and you just know. You get that little voice in the back of your mind telling you “this is a place I could stay”, or “this is somewhere I belong”. Austin gave me those thoughts, and I just knew. But let me start from the beginning…

One day, in the middle of April, I was sitting at my desk trudging on through the work day, wishing I was somewhere else, when I had an epiphany; I should take a mini vacation. Then it came down to deciding where to go, simple enough, right? Wrong. Being in the center of the country means that my options are incredibly limited, and unlimited, all at the same time. I can take a plane heading anywhere in the country in a relatively small amount of time, and I can take plenty of road trips, but most of the “desirable” places to go in the scorching heat of the summer (i.e., the beach, for obvious reasons) are quite far away. Now I’m the queen of road trips, so per usual, I opted for that, then looked at the map and just chose. Just like that. Austin, Texas is it was. My family vacationed in Texas often when I was young, so the idea of venturing there on my own this year felt comfortable and inviting. So, I grabbed a friend, and off we went!

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Driving from Kansas City to Austin wasn’t the MOST pleasant of things, but I think making that whole drive down, through the construction, traffic, and holiday travelers made driving into the city that much sweeter. I was more excited than I ever would have expected to be when I realized we were about to *finally* make our way into town. I even pulled off the road, just to capture the moment for myself, and you as well, I suppose. For anyone familiar with the city, we stayed just off East Cesar Chavez, and it was a hipster’s paradise, let me tell you. I loved it.

We were only there for the weekend, so I didn’t get the chance to do many of the things I had hoped, but I still had an amazing time. Our first stop was visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, and explored for quite a while. I genuinely enjoyed learning so much about his presidency, the good and not so good parts alike. I’m someone that loves learning as much as possible about history, and this was something new for me to dig into. The library itself was quite astounding, walking up the steps towards it was a special experience all on its own, without factoring in the beautifully put together LBJ Museum that accompanied it.

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After we were satisfied with our exploration there, we decided to visit the capitol building. For any of you that may not know, or may be from a different country, in the US, we have our Nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C., but each individual state has it’s own Capitol as well. Austin happens to be the state Capitol of Texas, so the (absolutely beautiful) Texas State Capitol Building is here as well. We took quite a long walk around the grounds, and had a bit of a wander through the interior of the building as well. My favorite part, however, was simply sitting on a bench, near the front of the building, all by my lonesome. Having a tea and taking it all in, that’s what I do best.

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From there, we simply explored. For the next two days, I ate more Tex-Mex than anyone should ever eat, I grew to feel like I was a part of a new place and a new city. I went grocery shopping, I laid by the river and read a book, I chatted with strangers in a bar; I completely immersed myself if the daily life of this city, and I think thats’s what made this trip so special for me. It felt like I was visiting a home away from home, and I was genuinely sad when it came to an end.

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I may have single handedly eaten all of the avocados in Austin, and I’m not even sure I’m exaggerating.

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One of my favorite moments was sitting by the river watching the sun go down around the city. I think this will be a memory I keep close for a long time.

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One of the things I admired most about Austin was the graffiti, which might sound strange to some people. But Austin is filled with beautiful, inspiring, and interesting graffiti. The city just seems like an even more special place after seeing how many people have made their mark here in such a positive way.

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I spent a surprising amount of time in this backyard whilst I was there. The house I rented had a beautiful backyard with a comfy seating area to relax in. I definitely made use of it, particularly the incredibly comfy lounge chairs, they were perfect for reading and relaxing. These popsicles were absolutely scrumptious by the way, check out GoodPop if you’re able to get your hands on them. They’re all natural, and are honestly the most delicious frozen fruit pops I’ve ever had. I’m feeling serious withdrawal symptoms at the moment.

The final day, before we had to wake up and make our way home, was the Fourth of July. Celebrating Independence Day in Texas is not something new for me, I’ve done it a few times in my life with my family, but this was a whole new experience for me. We went fairly early in the afternoon to secure a seat near the water to watch the fireworks over the city. I expected that there would be a lot of people, and Austin didn’t disappoint me there, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would love getting to know all the people that happened to be sitting around me. I arrived with one friend, and left with dozens, and it made me so much more in love with the city, and so much more pleased with the trip itself.

I had a few drinks, set off a few sparklers, and chatted with more people than I have in the past month, all in one night. The fireworks were stunning, the atmosphere was incredible, and it was the perfect ending to a much needed get away.

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I hope you’re doing well, where ever you are in the world, and I wish you all the best.

-Lexie Xx

Take Me Away | Santorini

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The next place on my list is this absolute beauty; The Island of Santorini, Greece. There are few places that can match the beauty of the seaside in Greece. I have dreamt of seeing so many different places in Greece since I was quite young. Hearing stories of Greek Gods and Goddesses, tales of Spartan battles, and eating Americanized versions of Greek foods all began my yearning to visit the almost magical Greek landscapes. From the beauty of its land to the beauty of its peoples, Greece is one country that I think everyone should push to the top of their lists. With the size that the island of Santorini is, there is no way I could list everything that I hope to see and do there in one blog post, but if you keep reading, you will see some of the top places and things that I wish to one day experience in the stunning place that is, Santorini.

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One major aspect of Santorini, and Greece in general really, that I’ve always wanted to see is simply the architecture. The contrasts of colors and the beautiful simplicity of the shapes of the buildings is stunning to me. The vibrant white and blue shades are instantly recognizable as Greek in any photos I see online and I am always blown away by them each time I see them. In an Art History course I took a year or so ago, we discussed Greek architecture at length. It was clear that the Greeks reached for perfection when building on the islands. With the signature Cycladic architceture, and classicaly modern beauty, the architecture in Greece is hard to beat. I am thrilled with the prospect of photographing these buildings. Standing on the cliffside, staring off into the ocean and breathtaking views of the staircase-like buildings seemingly holding onto the earth with a fierce grip, afraid of falling into the sea below. Its what dreams are made of really.

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As I mentioned before, Greek history and Ancient Greece have always been an interest of mine, and If I were to visit Santorini and pass up the chance to see Ancient Thera (or Thira) I wouldn’t be able to stand it. Being located high above the sea on Mesa Vouna, Ancient Thera has stunning panoramic views of the ocean and buildings that lie below. As a bit of a history buff, I’ve learned over the years that the ruins of Ancient Thera date back to the Hellenistic era, and there are also extensive bits of the ruins that are clear to have come from the Roman and Byzantine periods. It is truly something spectacular to a girl from America, where buildings and sites are in their infancy by comparison. The extensive ruins also include Roman baths, Byzantine walls, and the stone church of Agios Stefanos, which is pictured above. I can’t imagine the feeling of being able to stand amidst something so old, filled with so much history. Thinking of how many hundreds of years ago it was built, what life must have been like for the people living there, how different the landscape below them would have looked, I can’t help but feel grateful that the option is there for me. Seeing the remains of the Temple of Dionysos, the Sanctuary of Artemidoros, or the Terrace of the Festivals would be a dream come true for me, and I feel like anyone visiting Santorini would be mad to pass up the chance to experience it.

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The next place on my list is the unbelievably stunning village of Oia. From friends that have visited, I have learned that Oia is not only one of the most famous villages in all of Santorini, but it is also one of the most relaxing places that you could go. Overlooking not only the sea but also the volcano of Palia and Nea Kameni and the island of Thirassia. Friends have told me, and photos have shown me, that viewing the sunset from Oia will someday be one of my fondest memories. I cant wait to be able to sit on a balcony in the village overlooking the vast sea and land surrounding Santorini, with a chilled glass of Ouzo, watching the sun disappear on the horizon. Aside from its breathtaking views, Oia will also give you that “oh my goodness, I am in Greece!” sort of feeling when you stroll down the narrow pathways, see the blue domed churches, sit down for a traditional Greek meal in one of the various cafes, or take the long journey down the set of 300 steps leading to the small port of Oia, called Ammoudi. I am looking forward to the moment when I can share a blog post full of photos of me enjoying the beauty of Oia with you in the future, I just hope it will be sooner rather than later.

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If there is one thing that Santorini has to offer, that I dream of experiencing, it is the sheer romance of the island. As a young single female, it’s hard not to imagine all of the amazing romantic excursions and moments that one can have in the various villages of Santorini. The landscape, the views, the volcanic distruction (okay, maybe not everyone’s cup of tea) and the undeniable beauty of this, and all other Greek Isles strike a match inside me, causing me to long for one of those storybook romances, where someone will sweep me off my feet, and whisk me away for a romantic Grecian vacation, filled with incredible sites, delicious foods, and endless love and romance. A girl can dream, right?

There is no shortage of places to see and things to do in this picture-perfect Greek Island. While writing this post, I am feeling so incredibly inspired. There is so much beauty out there, so much history waiting for me. I can’t wait for the day that my wanderlust gets the chance to break free, and guide me on all the adventures I dream of having.

I hope you’re doing well, where ever you are in the world, and I wish you all the best.

-Lexie Xx