Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure LeBlanc was only 6 years old when she lost her sight to severe cataracts. She lives in Paris with her father, a master locksmith who created a scale model of their local area so that she could memorise the roads, buildings, trees, benches and storm drains by feel, allowing her to safely navigate between his office at the natural history museum and their home.

Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives in Frau Elena’s children’s home with his sister Jutta. One day he finds and brings home a broken radio set, and by pure instinct takes it apart and repairs it. Soon he becomes a highly sought-after radio repairman – even though he is only 13 years old. His talent for electronics comes to the attention of local authorities, who recommend him for admission to an elite academy that prepares German boys for military service.

When Marie-Laure is 12, the German army invades Paris, forcing her and her father to flee to Saint-Malo, where her Great Uncle has hidden himself away since coming back shell-shocked from the First World War, with an extensive collection of radios of his own. As the war draws to a close, Werner also finds himself posted in Saint-Malo…

Both Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories are told in a series of flash-backs and flash forwards, revisiting episodes from their childhoods and their wartime experiences, focusing on the final days before the liberation of Saint-Malo by the Americans. In spite of the fractured nature of the storylines, I didn’t find it at all hard to follow. Anthony Doerr has created characters who are well-rounded and easy to care about. Marie-Laure is a bright and inquisitive girl who rarely allows her limitations to get the better of her. Werner is also extremely clever, and his party loyalty is often challenged by his disgust of the injustices he sees occuring around him, and his fears for his sister’s safety.

I won’t say much more, except that I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, and would recommend it to fans of dramatic novels and wartime stories.

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Time flies…

In case you were wondering, I’m still here… I’ve just been so busy doing things worth writing about that I haven’t had time to write about them! Here’s a short summary of what I’ve been up to:

  1. I’ve been working on two separate history projects. One has been quite intense but is progressing well, and is nearing the final stages. The other went so quiet for several months that I wasn’t sure I was still involved, but it has ramped up again over the last week or so, and looks like it’s going to be a whirlwind now it’s started!
  2. I’ve borrowed far too many library books. On my last trip I found so many that I just had to read…if only I had as much free time as I need to finish them all! There’ll be a book review posted in a few days, and hopefully a couple more next week…
  3. My Kindle died. I’m not happy about this one. I don’t really rely on my Kindle, but it was so much lighter than carrying real books when traveling. I’m going to download the Kindle app on my tablet when I get around to it, because I can’t afford to buy another one – not that it will be a perfect solution, as my tablet is much heavier than my Kindle was. :-(

Well, that’s about it. Hopefully I’ll have the energy to post a little more frequently in the future!

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Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Maud is 82 years old, and she forgets a lot of things. She goes to shops, and then can’t remember what she was there for. She can’t always tell you the day of the week, or when she last ate. Sometimes she doesn’t recognise her own family members. She has pockets full of notes to remind her of things, but she’s not sure whether the notes are old or new. Maud is sure of only one thing. Her friend Elizabeth is missing.

This book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be at first, but it was still amazing. Emma Healey tells the story through Maud’s eyes, and creates a sense of equal parts confusion and frustration throughout that feels very authentic. (My grandfather is 83, and he forgets a lot of things. He is often confused and/or frustrated, so I can relate.) As Maud’s short term memory slips away, she often finds herself drawn back to memories of her youth: the end of World War II, rationing, black market supplies, and her sister Sukey.

I’m going to have to stop there, as I don’t want to go spoiling it for anyone. I won’t say, ‘I couldn’t put it down’, but there were times when putting it down was a struggle… Read it if you like… actually, I’ve never read anything quite like this before, so I don’t really know what to compare it to. I guess I’d describe it as understated family drama, but don’t let my inability to classify Elizabeth is Missing put you off reading it!

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Book Review: Richard III

backtotheclassics2015BUTTONI’ve been really struggling with this challenge this year… 8 weeks in, and I’m still only a quarter of the way through the first book I started, so I thought I’d take a break from it and try Shakespeare’s Richard III instead. After all, a play only takes three hours to perform, it should only take a few hours to read, right? Turns out, no.

Usually I love Shakespeare. I love the comedies, I love the tragedies. I even liked Henry V (the only other one of his histories I’ve read). Richard III disappointed me.

I chose Richard III for the ‘classic play’ category for several reasons. There’s been a lot of public interest in the life of King Richard III since his corpse was recently re-discovered. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines come from Richard III. Then of course, there’s one of my all-time favourite songs from Horrible Histories.

(From Horrible Histories – BBC)

Honestly… you’d think if Shakespeare really was making all of it up, it would be a little more interesting. It seemed to me that the whole thing was politics, politics and more politics – and every once in a while someone would come on and announce that another character’s death had occurred offstage.

Please don’t misunderstand me… I am well aware that Shakespeare is a genius, and I really do love some of his plays, but as anyone who’s read my review of The Man in the Iron Mask will know – too much politics in a story turns me right off…

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Thank goodness!

I just had to share this article…

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-read Harry Potter…

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Damn it January, where did you go?

I started off this year with such good intentions… I was going to blog more. I was going to write more short stories. I was going to start editing my novel. I’m already falling behind.

Three deadlines for short story competitions have now passed me by. One of them I had a fantastic idea for, but not enough time to research. While I was letting this idea stew, nothing happened on the other competitions. The next deadline is in two weeks, and I’m honestly thinking I won’t have anything ready for that this year either… Oh well…

I started off blogging pretty regularly, 2-3 times a week, but the last week I’ve just had nothing to say for myself. I haven’t finished any books that I want to review, and I haven’t written anything. I bought about ten ‘new’ second-hand books, but I wasn’t going to admit to that (honestly, I lost count, but ten sounds about right).

I haven’t started editing my novel yet, although I was intending to go back to it with fresh eyes anyway, so maybe February will be the month for that. Is it just me, or is this year already moving way too fast?

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Book Review: The Pianist

This is going to be a short one… Wow.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was a well-known Polish pianist and composer, who performed frequently on Polish radio. He was also a Jew, and after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he became one of the millions of people subjected to Hitler’s anti-semitic laws. After several years living in the Warsaw ghetto, his entire family was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka, but Wladyslaw was saved by a policeman who was apparently a fan. He then joined a crew working construction in the ghetto for several more months, until he was able to contact friends on the other side of the walls, who helped him escape and hid him in a series of apartments in the city. As the war drew to a close, Warsaw was almost emptied, leaving Szpilman to fend for himself. He then met Wilm Hosenfeld, a German officer who saw no sense in the atrocities he was being ordered to commit and did what he could to keep Szpilman alive until the Russians arrived to liberate Poland.

There is little literary merit in this one. Szpilman was a musician, not a writer. There are just the raw facts, which make for a harrowing story of survival. Written almost as soon as the war was over, it was soon withdrawn from publication by the Russians, who did not approve of the accusations of collaboration with the Germans by Ukranian and Lithuanian mercenaries. It was not until late in the 20th Century that Andrej Szpilman, Wladyslaw’s son, found a copy on his father’s shelf and submitted it for re-publication. The story is shocking, and at times almost unbelievable. It is not surprising that, towards the end, Szpilman frequently contemplates suicide, even going so far as to plan his methods. On one occasion he is convinced the Germans are coming to get him and actually swallows a whole bottle of sleeping pills, but fortunately he wakes up the next morning.

I have read quite a few memoirs by people who survived Hitler’s tyranny in Europe, both Jews and the people who were arrested for hiding them. Every time they are painfully familiar, but each still has something new to offer. The Pianist is certainly worth reading, but it’s not a pleasant bed-time story.

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Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

If you stacked all the books currently on my TBR one on top of the other, the pile would be more than twice my height. According to Goodreads, there are 195 books I’m intending to read one day, and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t added all of the books I own but haven’t read yet… This has a point, and I swear I’m getting to it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was not on this list until a few days ago, when I saw it sitting on the couch at home. The title intrigued me. Idly, I picked it up and glanced at the blurb on the back cover. It mentioned books and WW2, two of my favourite subjects. Suddenly, it had jumped the queue.

It turns out, my mother had borrowed it from the library. Much as I hate to admit it, we often enjoy the same books, so as soon as she had finished it, I grabbed it.

The Plot

The novel begins in January 1946. During the Second World War, Juliet Ashton wrote a regular newspaper column pointing out the lighter side of wartime. At the close of the war Sidney Stark, the elder brother of a schoolfriend, published a volume of the best of these columns and is now eagerly awaiting Juliet’s next manuscript.

At the same time, Juliet receives a letter from a member of ‘the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’. Dawsey Adams had found her name and address on the fly-leaf of a second-hand book he enjoyed, and as there are no book shops on Guernsey anymore, he asks her to assist him in finding more works by the same author. Juliet is intrigued, not only by the strange request, but by the oddly named book club. She promptly strikes up a lively correspondence, not merely with Dawsey, but with many members (and detractors) of the society. She learns that the society was formed out of necessity during the German occupation of the Channel Islands, and sees that this is a story worth telling.

The entire book is actually a series of letters written by, to, or about Juliet. The correspondence varies between long letters, short notes and telegrams between Juliet and her publisher, his sister, her overbearing American suitor and the members of the society. As the story unfolds, the characters develop ever deeper friendships and Juliet attempts to piece together the stories of individuals into a coherent narrative.

I often judge the quality of a book by how quickly I read it. If it’s not grabbing me, a book can take me weeks. I finished this one in under 8 hours. I just couldn’t put it down. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but I will say that the depictions of life under German rule in Guernsey tally very closely with memoirs I have read of people under similar circumstances in the Netherlands and Poland. As far as recommendations go, this is probably more of a ‘girl’ book. That said, the romantic sup-plot takes up comparatively little real-estate, so I can imagine men enjoying it too, just probably not quite as much. Sadly, this was Mary Ann Schaffer’s only novel. The 73-year-old former librarian was in ill health when the manuscript was sold, and died just months before the book was published, after asking her niece, Annie Barrows, to step in and complete the editing process.

One last point. Apparently a film adaption is in the works, with filming due to start later this year. Part of me can’t wait, and part of me says “Don’t hold your breath”. After all, they’ve been promising me a movie version of Wicked for years, and I’m still waiting…

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Book Review: The African Trilogy

Note: Technically I’ll be reviewing three books here but since they were published in one volume, I’ll be reviewing them as a set.

I’m not exactly sure when I first saw Chinua Achebe’s name. I was researching books to read by authors from cultures other than my own, when it came up on some website or other. It also turned up on the catalogue of my local library, so I decided to give it a whirl. I’d never heard of The African Trilogy until a few weeks ago, and had no idea what it was going to be about when I started reading it, but boy was it worth it. Essentially it covers certain aspects of white colonization and attempts to ‘civilise’ the Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria.

Things Fall Apart

Tells the story of Okonkwo, a resident of Umuofia. His father was not a good provider, and in his efforts to avoid his father’s poor reputation, Okonkwo rules his family with an iron fist. He keeps to the old traditions, and rapidly rises through the ranks of his village to become a respected citizen. Just as he is on the brink of attaining the highest title available to him… things fall apart (hence the title).

No Longer at Ease

Some 25 years after Things Fall Apart, we meet Okonkwo’s grandson Obi, who has just been convicted of using his position in the Nigerian civil service to take bribes. The judge at his trial expresses surprise that a man who has been given the opportunities Obi had (including being educated at a university in England) should sink so low. The remainder of the novel leaves the readers in no doubt, following Obi’s travels from Umuofia to the UK, and then to the city of Lagos – and his descent from a young idealist determined to keep his morals to convicted criminal.

Arrow of God

Is concerned with events in the six villages of Umuaro, which are overseen by the same white administration that appeared in Things Fall Apart. Ezeulu (translated literally, the ‘king of ulu’) is high priest of the god Ulu, who was created by the six villages to be their supreme deity after the villages united in war against another nearby clan. This has created some jealousy, particularly from Ezidemili, the high priest of the Royal Python (Idemili) who was formerly the highest deity in their pantheon. Ezeulu understands that his position is largely ceremonial. While he advises the local elders when times demand it, he rarely insists on his advice being followed. The white administrators do not understand this, and feel that Ezeulu should be given a warrant to become Chief of his clan (answering to the colonial government, of course.)

I chose to read this book because I wanted to expand my horizons a little, and experience literature from outside of my little bubble. Reading these novels was like sticking my toe into a pool to test the water and finding myself falling in the deep end. I knew almost nothing about Nigerian history and culture before I read this, so I was completely unprepared for what I learned. The way Achebe describes the Igbo peoples’ lifestyles and beliefs, was… well… there were certain practices that I’m not surprised the colonists wanted to stamp out. That said, there were also times when I found myself shaking my head at the depth of ignorance displayed by the ‘white masters’. Given the long history of British incompetence when it comes to Empire and colonisation (and the mistreatment of the native inhabitants in almost every country they conquered, including here in Australia) I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

As I have little previous experience of African literature, I’m not really sure how to describe the writing style. Was it typically African? I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t like anything I’ve read before. There was a certain amount of repetition, especially when nailing home instructive analogies which had clearly been passed down through the generations. Perhaps this was more pronounced because sometimes these sayings appeared in two – or even all three – of the novels.

Last question – did I enjoy The African Trilogy? Yes, I really did. It took me a little while to get into Things Fall Apart, but once I did I finished it quickly. No Longer at Ease I read in under a day. Arrow of God was the longest part of the trilogy, but still only took me a few days to read. If you, too, are looking to read something different, I would definitely recommend The African Trilogy.

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(When) Is a story set in stone?

Yesterday I started reading a novel, the third in a trilogy. In a ‘preface to the second edition’, the author states that in re-reading the novel he found some ‘structural weaknesses’ which he had chosen to ‘remove’. He basically stated that he doesn’t care what the novel’s ‘detractors’ would feel about this, but he hoped that the ‘admirers’ will approve of the changes. This is not the first time I’ve come across this phenomenon. Last year when reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, I discovered that there were several different editions, including one called the ‘author’s preferred edition’, which combined elements of the British and American editions.

This has got me thinking… when is a story set in stone? Is there a point, at the end of all the drafts and editing, when an author can really say, “this is exactly what I wanted to say, and I am completely happy with it”? Is there a point when an author just has to let it go?

Here’s another question. Can an author make major changes after a work has been published, or should any changes after that point just be cosmetic? I don’t have the answer.

Last year I wrote a short story that I submitted to a competition, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t completely happy with it. Obviously the judges agreed with me, I didn’t appear in the prizes. I knew the ending wasn’t quite right, but I still feel that there was something in it. What do I do with that story now? If I do figure out how to fix it, I will. I might even submit it to another competition (not the same one, obviously). But how do I know when to stop making changes? When is it time to just let it go?

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