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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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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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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