The Light Between Oceans (CBR5 #20)

The Light Between Oceans

I’ve been putting off reviewing The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman for nearly a week trying to wrap my brain around how to express what this novel is, and what my opinions are about it.

The Light Between Oceans came to my attention from Valyruh’s review as well as from Goodreads Best of 2012 voting (it won for best Historical Fiction). I waited rather patiently for it to arrive from my library and only started to get truly anxious to read it once I saw Jen K’s five-star review, since she and I agree on many, many books. In numerous ways I agree with her review of the book. But, when I initially finished the book I only gave it four stars as compared to her five.

The titular light is Janus, the lighthouse located on the southwestern coast of Australia sitting between the Indian and Southern oceans. It is on this small island that the reader learns the tale of Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Isabel. Tom returns from the Great War a broken man, withdrawing from society. He finds refuge working on the lights, having minute but immeasurably important tasks which physically remove him from civilization. It is on his way to Janus to serve as a relief keeper that Tom meets Isabel and their paths become intertwined.  Isabel brings Tom out of his shell and they build a life together on Janus, but after suffering a series of miscarriages, Isabel’s grief and the arrival of a rowboat with a dead man and an infant, Tom makes a decision for the sake of his wife that is morally and ethicaly suspect.

This is Stedman’s debut novel and it is a exquisitely delivered. The descriptive language and vacillation between third person and first person storytelling make the story simultaneously intimate and overarching. At its center this is a novel about the moral and ethical boundaries we will bend for love, and what it means to create a family, and how families are both incredibly fragile and strong beyond measure. In her review Valyruh points out that “As many reviewers have commented, this is a sad tale. But it is a riveting one, forcing us to reflect on the morally ambiguous choices good people–like ourselves–make every day without thought of the consequences. Stedman’s writing is compelling, her settings gorgeously described, and her characters have histories and embody all the strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness of everyman.” The novel is inherently sad, and that is perhaps my greatest complaint against it. There is just so much pain, but none of it is blown beyond the proportions of the plot and all of the decisions and actions of the characters fit into who they are. The reader is never left to question why they do what they do, only to fear for what comes next.

The pacing in the novel works especially well, we know from the very beginning the Sherbournes’ big secret, and we spend the rest of the novel tracking how they arrive at that point and how they proceed with their lives. The reader gets swept up like one of Janus’ crashing waves and we see disaster looming on the horizon, waiting for the storm to breach the shore. When it does, the story turns on end. Stedman performs a high wire act of great skill towards the conclusion of the novel, and in the final few chapters gives us a satisfying narrative which was more subtle and certainly more unexpected than I’d dared hoped.

I find for CBR5 the difference between four and five stars to be purely a matter of heart. If I LOVE the book and want to shout that love from the rooftops it gets five stars, if I think it’s fantastic but it doesn’t pull at my heartstrings, or if I don’t find myself aching to push it into the hands of everyone I know then it gets a four star rating. This book had me in LOVE with its characters from the moment go and pulled at every bit of my heart but I’m having a hard time actively inviting anyone else into the heartache this book delivers. Read at your own risk, but know that this is a masterfully crafted novel.

Looking for Alaska (CBR5 #19)

After reading The Fault in Our Stars last year and seeing many positive reviews of John Green’s earlier work I decided to start at the beginning of his oeuvre and have a read through. That brought me to Looking for Alaska. It also didn’t hurt that it made the top ten most frequently challenged books list of 2012 for having offensive language, being sexually explicit, as well as being unsuited for age group. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

We start the novel meeting Miles “Pudge” Halter’s life growing up has been uneventful. He’s virtually friendless and has decided that attending his father’s boarding school will be the change he needs to seek his “Great Perhaps”.  When Miles arrives at Culver Creek Boarding School his life becomes the opposite of uneventful. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself; is funny, sexy, and a mess. There was Miles’ life before Alaska, and his life after.
The book itself is set up in two sections, Before and After.  We’re with Pudge throughout the novel and his various adventures with new friends Alaska, the Colonel, Lara and Takumi as he navigates the events of his junior year of high school and how his relationships with all these people effect the person he is becoming. While I don’t believe in banning books, I did have moments where I blanched knowing my 14 year old niece read the scenes containing a blowjob and the vast amount of underage drinking, and then I was immediately mad at myself because I did a lot of underage drinking and smoking and was well versed in various sexual acts even though I had yet to personally take part in them at a similar age. The characters on the page are very real, but also have that signature John Green touch of being slightly enhanced from anyone you actually know.  I whole-heartedly suggest Looking for Alaska make its way onto your to read list.

Sorcery and Cecelia (CBR5 #18)

There was something about the description of Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer that drew me in – cousins in 19th century England encountering boys and magical intrigue? Sure, why not.

This novel’s main characteristic is that it started its life as a letter writing game between two writer friends as an exercise to hone their skills. The plot of the story was not discussed between the authors, they simply took turns writing from their particular character’ perspective laying out the various components as they went. What this does for the reader is to create two novels happening simultaneously with shared characters while also delivering a cohesive plot.

I promise it’s better than that description makes it sound. As an amateur writer who scribbles for fun the very idea of embarking on such an exercise scares the bejesus out of me. Not only did Patricia Wrede to and Caroline Stevermer publish this story but they continued on with these characters for two more books. This is the case of two writers finding a perfect match and defining clear character voices in Kate and Cecy keep the reader interested and able to separate the different voices.

The only detractor I can really lay out (besides some rather stupid decisions by the antagonists, but really – aren’t they supposed to make stupid decisions every so often?) is that since most of the secondary characters are already known to our two leads they do not do a great job of making them distinguishable for the reader.  For the early part of the book I had a tough time telling the difference between the various aunts and gentleman callers.