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: Feed by Mira Grant

When going on holidays recently, I asked FaceBook friends for some reading recommendations (this was despite having about forty books in my “to-read” pile). Feed, by Mira Grant was one of them and, why I chose it from the many other wonderful suggestions I received was the way it was “sold” to me by another writer, the lovely Mandy Wrangles. I still remember. She wrote something along the lines of, “It’s a zombie book, only, it’s not. It’s so much more. Don’t let the zombie thing put you off. This is an amazing book, dystopian and about communication, the media and politics and it’s just incredible…”

To be fair, Mandy said it far more eloquently than that, but that’s how I absorbed it and was intrigued. Much preferring zombies on the screen than on the page, I’d resisted anything remotely zombified before, but I was going on a holiday, why not challenge myself? Take a holiday from my usual genres? Am I glad I did. Oh. Boy. Mandy was right, Feed, the first book in the Newsflesh Trilogy, was not what I expected – even with Mandy’s wonderful affirmations, it thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

Set in the very near future, after a zombie plague has basically wiped out a great deal of the civilised world, facilitated the establishment of gated communities, serious and constant health checks, and armed protection services, and seen the mainstream media not replaced, but in healthy competition with bloggers (the reason being that when the uprising of zombies began, the media were in denial and, due to government control and censorship, inclined to perpetuate fallacies – it was bloggers who told the truth and won reader loyalty and trust), this tale centres around prominent blogger, Georgia Mason, who along with her brother Shaun and their IT specialist, win a contract to accompany a candidate throughout the drawn-out presidential election. Overjoyed at such a coup, they quickly accept and join the convoy, travelling throughout parts of the US, being given insights into not just the political machinations of the party and those who belong, but the media and the plots and cunning of desperate men, including the biggest secret of all – the terrible conspiracy behind the infected….

This is a wild, hold-on-to-the-edge-of-your-seat book that, after an ETesque opening (but with zombies, death and destruction on the protagonists’ bicycle tail), immerses you in this post-apocalytpic reality of a country/world torn apart by a mass infection and its consequences. Orphaned at a young age, brother and sister Georgia and Shaun, though they’ve been adopted, have to survive on their wits and intelligence and neither of these are in short supply. Nor is their sense of justice and determination to see it meted out.

Though the zombies (the infected) hover at the edges of the story the entire time, bursting into the narrative at opportune and sometimes unexpected moments, the real story here is the politics – not simply Republican versus Democratic, though that’s there, but personal politics as well. How individuals manoeuvre themselves into positions of power, the politics around the stories we tell, about ourselves, each other – what’s omitted, what’s included, the impression we strive to give and maintain- and the strength of meta-narratives to colour and infect the smaller ones. It’s also about belonging, connectivity, being an outsider – of family, society and beyond. It’s about truth, lies and everything in-between. It’s about when to compromise – morally, physically, intellectually – and when it’s appropriate not to.

As story-tellers with credibility, Georgia and Shaun know how important their job is, how much the surviving masses rely on them to keep the lines of communication open, to spread the “truth” and to provide informed opinion. But story-telling in this world is also big business, and ratings are important. Hence, risks must be taken, not with the truth, never with that, but with reputations, uncovering relevant information and, for Georgia and Shaun, it also means putting their lives (and that of others) on the line.

This never becomes more important or real than when they discover the truth about the zombies…

This is such an original and compelling book. Alternately shocking and heart-wrenching, capable of blood-thirsty scenes and great pathos, the characters are strong, purposeful to a fault, but also ever-so vulnerable, the combination is intoxicating and nerve-wracking. You invest so heavily in both Georgia and Shaun, shout at and with them from the sidelines, revel in their ingenuity and disingenuousness. The narrative twists and flows in ways that are never predictable but always true to the overall arc and intentions of the book – you believe in everything that’s happening and the rationale behind it. An example of this is the reasoning behind why there are zombies in the first place. An interview with Grant (at the end of the book) reveals that she was always frustrated by films and other books that took zombies for granted, that is, the writer/s never explained how they became that way, except to point to biting and contagion through other means as the answer. The origins of the infection and what happens in the body of a human who becomes a zombie is rarely if ever dealt with. Feed addresses this in a scientific and acceptable but never dull way. The explanation simply feeds (excuse the pun) into the logic of the setting and time the author has created. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect as well.

Whether or not you like “zombies” (what’s NOT to like J), whether or not you enjoy dystopian narratives, this is a great book. But, if you’re looking for well-crafted, tightly written, imaginatively conceived stories that take you on an incredible, high-octane adventure while simultaneously exploring some serious ethical and philosophical issues and offering a critique of modern media with kick-arse, wonderful rich and complex characters and a plot dripping with intrigue, this is the book for you.

Touted as young adult, it’s not. It’s for anyone who loves astonishing novels.

I have bought the second and (er um) can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

A huge big thank you to Mandy!

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