All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Why oh why did it take me so long to read the beautifully titled, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr? I bought it not long after it came out, started it about a year later but, for some reason (I think the genres I’d been reading or what was going on in my life meant it didn’t resonate at that moment) I put it aside, promising myself I would get to it later as it was well written and I could tell the story would drag me in. Well, later came and went, it seems. That was, until a friend tweeted me a few days ago asking me if I’d read it and reviewed it and saying how powerful he found the book…

Powerful hey? That was enough of a prompt to send me back to the novel – starting from the beginning again – and basically surrender myself to Doerr’s magnificent prose and war-torn Europe. The central characters Doerr so carefully and delicately constructs (like the miniature houses the locksmith lovingly creates) insinuate themselves from the pages and, little by little, into your heart. There’s blind, clever and sweet Marie-Laure, the ambitious, soul-crushed, orphan Werner and his strong sister, Jutta; gentle dreamer with unshakeable ethics, Frederick; Etienne, and the dangerous giant with a passion for classical music, Volkheimer – all of whom are swept up in the dark forces that tore Europe apart and forever transformed its people.

Beautifully and heart-wrenchingly told, using various communication devices – from radios and sound to art, books and music, as well as science (particularly studies of various fauna) and the works of Jules Verne – as metaphors to tell the painful story of what happens to the central characters as their families, communities, cities and countries fight for dominance and/or freedom from that. The greatest battles are the interior wars the characters fight with themselves. Blindness also functions as both a metaphor and a reality. There’s the actual physical loss of sight, as well as being blind – usually wilfully – to what is happening within and around one. How even good people can be complicit in terrible things. Innocence is both lost and found, people vanish and reappear, have their greatest strengths tested and their weaknesses exposed. Dreams are destroyed and rebuilt and hope shines its effervescent light even in the dimmest of places.

I have read a number of war narratives with mixed responses and found this to be one of the most original and haunting I have found. My friend (John) was right – it is powerful, but it’s also moving, heart-warming, dramatic and painful at the same time. Your heart is masterfully juggled as you read – thrown high in the air, before being held softly in a palm or simply dropped. Gut-wrenching doesn’t begin to describe it.

This book isn’t an easy read, but it is a transformative one that I am so glad I was eventually led back to – thank you, John. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Book Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Recommended to me by a dear friend with great taste in books (and everything else for that matter!), I was delighted when I began reading Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan to discover it was a fictional account of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his older and beloved wife, Fanny ven de Grift Osbourne.

I didn’t know anything about Fanny so discovering more about this magnificent woman, her life, strength, creativity, loyalty and endurance, was wonderful. We first meet Fanny when, with three young children, she sets off from San Francisco to study art in Belgium only to find the sch17797253ool she intended to enroll in doesn’t accept women. Taking this in her stride, Fanny sets off to Paris, determined to pursue her dream and escape the trap her life with her unfaithful husband, Sam, has become. Once there, her life changes in ways she could never have foreseen, but it’s indicative of the era (and the mindset of various folk) that women – and especially ones like Fanny who are smart and independent – often exchange one form of imprisonment for another.

Horan does a wonderful job of presenting the reader with a fully rounded character whom you champion as much for her flaws as her warmth and formidable directness. A woman ahead of the times in many ways, Fanny does not suffer fools, especially after her early life is mostly defined by one. Experiencing great tragedy and loss, Fanny tries not to let these circumstances define her or the lives of her children, though these are a constant sad presence which mark her indelibly and make her artistic soul ache. A fish out of water as an American in France, England, Scotland and later the South Pacific, Fanny is both a survivor and someone who seeks to improve her situation in whatever way she can. Unable to tolerate injustice, this is one characteristic she shares with her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson.

 

RLS was also a revelation. Horan draws this ebullient, sick, witty, intelligent and oft-times difficult man with sensitivity and realism. As a child, I was introduced to the work of RLS with the beautiful Child’s Garden of Verses, which I in turn read to my own kids. I adored this book and it provided succor and delight through some dark times as did, when I was a little older, Kidnapped! and Treasure Island (Long John Silver both terrified and exhilarated me!). As a mature age Uni student, I came to appreciate Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde so, in a sense, Stevenson’s works have been literary paving stones upon which I stepped at different parts of my life. Discovering, even in fiction, the man behind the words was lovely. Popular, generous, offended by and active against injustice, he used his gift with words to entertain, thrill and inform. Surrounded by good friends, including members of the literary elite such as Henry James, it wasn’t until RLS’s fame grew that he also encountered syncophants and the pressure that can come with professional expectations.

Dogged by illness his entire life, he and Fanny (who was as much a nurse as critic and wife) would move locations to manage his sickness. This took them to fascinating places and had them enjoying (or not) amazing encounters: from the Swiss Alps to the South Seas all of which are covered in this lovely book.

I had no idea RLS was so peripatetic and this was particularly fascinating.

You don’t have to be a fan of RLS or his work to adore this book. It is a great story, a love story that deserves to stand with better known and heralded ones, as well as a fabulous recounting of a life well-lived and well-loved. Terrific.

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Book Review: The Charlemagne Pursuit, Steve Berry

I generally love Steve Berry books. They’re reliable action/thrillers with a great protagonist, Cotton Malone, former Magellan Billet agent and now a bookshop owner (which you have to love). Berry’s books also possess a good dose of fanciful history – meaning, he researches them, used aspects of known history and adds his own deft touches. While The Charlemagne Pursuit ticked some of the boxes in that it featured Cotton, was action-packed and had some reconstructed history woven through the plot-line, including maps and hieroglyphs, something happened between the idea and the execution; something that rendered the finished product less than satisfactory.

Ostensibly, this novel is about Cotton being given the file that reveals “the truth” of how his father, a Captain on a top-secret US submarine, died while on a classified mission. Told one version of events from the age of ten, Cotton discovers he’s been deceived (he “can’t handle the truth”) and this sends him off on a journey of self-discovery. But the truth can be a dangerous thing, especially when it threatens those who for years have relied on keeping it hidden to maintain their positions.

Learning that Cotton threatens to expose secrets kept for decades, there are those at the top of the US defence tree who will do anything to ensure secrets lay buried, even if means Cotton’s (and anyone else involved) interred with them.

The action takes place in parallel narratives and moves from part of Europe, to the USA and, ultimately, Antarctica. While I could accept most of the improbable story-line (it’s Steve Berry after all, and I’m prepared to have some fun), the part I struggled most with were the villains. It’s as if Berry found them in Villains ‘R Us. First, there were the German characters, the malevolent matriarch and her beautiful twin daughters, Dorothea Lindauer and Christl Faulk, as well as the family’s henchman, Igor, I mean, Ulrich Henn. Then there were the American baddies – two naval personnel and a hired assassin. All of these people appeared to kill willy-nilly (even those who have shown loyalty and the ability to keep secrets – why? To add to the book’s body-count? Surely, as is the case, these connected deaths simply arouse suspicion…? D’oh!), or without really thinking through the consequences of the deaths.

Co-incidentally, Dorothea and Christl’s father was also onboard the submarine controlled by Malone’s dad and, like Malone, they’re interested in separating fiction from fact but to do that, they need the file Cotton has just been handed. Hovering between aiding Cotton and trying to kill him (for really, really senseless reasons), the women in this family come across as two-dimensional clichés. They were so bland and predictable and basically, idiotic. For example, one of the sisters just kills people at random. Likewise, the sisters’ relationship is explained in such Freudian 101 terms, it was laughable. They’re forty-eight and mummy still manipulates their hearts, minds and thus actions? They seek her (and dead daddy’s) approval constantly? Didn’t buy it – not even when their massive inheritance is thrown in for good measure. Nothing they or their mother did made sense – their motivations, their insistence on mis-leading, deceiving, aligning themselves with various people (just ‘cause?), making phone calls, tormenting, whether for good or not, didn’t even propel the plot, they mostly hindered it. I couldn’t believe that Berry had constructed such pathetic, misguided, stereotyped women who were narcissistic, selfish and dull. Seen through Cotton’s eyes, we’re told the twins are beautiful, all right, but when he concedes they’re smart, courageous, conflicted, deceitful or hurting or anything else, we’re told, not shown in the writing. That Cotton sleeps with one is just ridiculous in terms of his character. While I accept he may have just wanted a shag, it wasn’t presented that way and appeared more a lapse of reason that was just plain out of character. Cotton is not a skirt-chaser.

As for the American bad guys – again, poorly constructed clichés that serve the story one-dimensionally. They were also patently obvious in their Machiavellian ways, which makes me wonder why it took so long to tumble them? I mean, one of the guys has been murdering his way to the top for years (and one of the female characters has no trouble exposing all of this when it suits the narrative – so how come every other idiot in the Whitehouse can’t do the same???), and no-one notices? That’s just silly…

I could continue, but I won’t, because it’s not all bad and there are some genuinely thrilling moments.

Evoking the spectres of Nazis, Charlemagne, Aryans, angels, heavenly language and the possibility of an advanced race who roamed the planet long before we humans were capable of such advanced exploration, never mind advanced subs, polar exploration, and dysfunctional family dynamics this book really tries to cover a great deal.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I hoped and that’s because the female characters (with the slight exception of Stephanie Nelle) pissed me off. So did all the villains. I just couldn’t believe in them in any way shape or form. Worse, I couldn’t credit that Cotton would either.

Perhaps that’s credit to how firmly Berry has established Cotton has a protagonist in fans’ minds that I found his dealings with the twins and their mother ridiculous and unlikely. Sadly, because they’re the core of this story, it renders the plot and its execution weak.

Overall, not a great addition to the Malone series, but I will keep reading them because I know Berry can also produce the narrative goods.

 

 

 

 

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