All the Light We Cannot See (CBR7 #7)

I loved this one.

I wasn’t really sure about All the Light We Cannot See when I decided to put a hold on it at my library (which has quickly escalated into an addiction in case you were wondering, I have approximately 20 books on holds which will deliver them to my library over the next 6 months). I based my selection of the book on its winning Goodreads Book of the Year –Historical Fiction and the glowing review of a friend on that site. My only concern was that I have read a lot of books set in 1930s/1940s Europe and wasn’t sure that I really wanted to spend more time there just now. As it turned out that wasn’t actually a problem and I devoured this masterly crafted work and sped through it over the course of three days.

The structure of this book is its biggest strength. We are on two timelines throughout – in one we are in August 1944 in Saint-Malo, France during the firebombing. In the second we travel from 1934 to August 1944 chronicling the movements and links between the characters in Saint-Malo. This doesn’t seem like it should be a gripping structure, but boy is it. Each chapter alternates between different characters, and for approximately 90% of the book we are moving between Werner, orphan in Germany’s coal country, radio/electrical genius and soon to be sucked up into the Nazi war machine and Marie-Laure, daughter of the master of keys and locks and the National Natural History Museum in Paris, and on the run with her father who has been tasked with keeping a piece of the collection safe from the invading German forces. Oh, and she’s been blind since the age of 6. It’s basically the same as the set up for Eleanor and Park, minus the love story and the knowing each other part.

I can’t seem to capture in words how captivating this narrative device truly is in this outing. Everywhere All the Light We Cannot See is mentioned the fact that Anthony Doerr spent a decade working on it is mentioned. Initially I was annoyed, I don’t tend to put a lot of weight into how long or how short someone’s writing process is. Everyone’s process is their own, you know? But as I worked my way through the stories of Werner and Marie-Laure, and the details started to line up, and the tension and mood were so expertly crafted, and the topics so lovingly brought to life, I understood why people wanted me to know how long Doerr spent, because the craftsmanship of a decade shines through like a well-made piece of furniture.

If there was a small stumble it was near the end. I had assumed that the ending of the book and the various narrative threads would wind up at the end of the war, and probably around August 1944, which we kept bouncing to and back from. It doesn’t. The narrative makes several additional jumps forward in the final 30 pages and while it was perhaps nice to see where these characters ended up, it was also somehow more than I needed. I think if the last jump forward hadn’t happened, I would have been completely satisfied.

This is however, my first five star book of the year, and I don’t give those out lightly. If you like historical fiction, read this.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

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American Gods (CBR7 #6)

I’ve read a couple of Neil Gaiman works before. I loved Ocean and the End of the Lane and had mostly good feelings about Neverwhere and that book, and its protagonist Richard Mayhew, has grown on me over time. (In fact, I suggest reading my friend Ale’s review from this year to get a better take on the book without the depression funk I was in in 2013). Late last year I saw badkittyuno’s review of American Gods and decided that it would be my Gaiman read for the new year.  As a bonus, she had listened to the tenth anniversary edition full cast audiobook and raved about it. I wanted to expand my bookish horizons into the land of audiobook (I’d had some rough starts up to this point with the genre) and decided that this would be a great plan.

With those decisions made I got myself a copy on Audible and set about going on a road trip with Shadow on my way to and from work in January.  It took over three weeks to listen to this story, because Gaiman’s preferred text which makes up the tenth anniversary edition, is 12,000 words longer than the original and is over 600 pages in print. In audio form it was 19 and a half hours long. Initially I thought, “Oh god, I’ve made a terrible mistake” and then I listened to the sultry tones of Neil Gaiman’s introduction and thought “I think this may work out just fine.”

The entire time I listened to this story I was caught up in the unfolding drama. The basic story of American Gods circulates around our man Shadow. Shadow is finishing up a three year stint in jail but just days before his release, Shadow’s wife and best friend are killed in a car accident. With his life in pieces (and strange circumstances looming) Shadow accepts a job as a driver, bodyguard of sorts, and errand boy from a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. The job takes Shadow on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters and a looming war amongst beings he would not have previously believed existed.

But what of the story beyond the plot? What was the meaning here? In my previous experience with Neil Gaiman there is ALWAYS more than what you see at the surface, but I couldn’t seem to put my finger on it. I actually think the audio experience might be part of the reason that I wasn’t making the bigger connections. I knew, for example, who my favorite character was (Sam the hitchhiker, without a doubt), I knew who I was most pleased to see show up on the page (Mr. Nancy/Anansi), which characters I couldn’t figure out (the Zorya Sisters) and that I was happy to be in the company of Shadow because he always seemed to just roll with the crazy punches. But was that all? No, but I didn’t piece it together until the author literally told me at the end of the audiobook.

In the appendix of the novel, Gaiman answers the question of how he as a Brit can write a book about American myths and the American soul. As he goes about talking about how foolish it might seem, he explains that when he wrote Sandman he created an imaginary America. Then after he moved to America he realized his ‘America’ was wholly fictional and the real one is more interesting. So in many ways American Gods chronicles the immigrant experience, both in its historic scale and its personal one.

We’re left with musings on the mythic America, a country that refuses to be completely known. And we’re given a character in Shadow who is much the same way. There is still much we don’t know about Shadow given the time we’ve spent with him, but maybe that’s the point after all.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky (CBR7 #5)

I’m still not sure what I want to tell you about this book. A few days ago on Twitter there was a conversation amongst some Cannonballers about which reviews are the hardest to write – the scathing or congratulatory. I weighed in that the scathing were easier to write, and the congratulatory ones take the most time to craft. What I forgot to take into account, and what would come home to roost this week, is that the “it had such great potential and then it shit the bed” reviews are perhaps the most soul crushing. But first let’s back up to the beginning.

I can’t be completely sure where I heard about this book and added it to my to-read queue. There was something about the conceit of Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky that jumped out to me and I thought to myself yes, I absolutely want to read a novelized  version of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson. And the title is so beautiful, pulled from RLS’s own work.  But I could have prepared myself for what I was running into if I’d paid slightly closer attention to the fabulous Jen K’s review from last year. But we each have to learn for ourselves I suppose.

Once I got started reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky I sailed through the first 200 pages happily enjoying the layered ways in which the story of these two seemingly incompatible people end up deeply in love and building a life together. We get to see Paris and Antwerp in the 1870s, artist colonies in southern France, as well as the messiness of a late 19th century divorce and Louis’ chronic lung illness. The story was heading for a four star rating. And then the wheels came off.  There is a fantastic story here, the story of two interesting, eccentric people finding themselves, a developing love story, and how it all affected the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson. But, it’s strangled by too much information, too much research, and too much unnecessary detail.

I was no longer able to sink into the story and enjoy as Ms. Horan’s research became the star of the show, not her writing. I think this may be a case of the author falling too much in love with her research.  And immaculately researched this book is. Horan went to the primary sources, to various collections of the Stevenson’s’ letters, their writings, and the writings of the friends and family to put the real words of these people onto the page. But in attempting to give us all of the information she sacrificed her narrative. At the end of the book I am only left with the notion that the life of Robert Louis Stevenson was unendingly difficult, and that choosing to live life with him made Fanny’s life even more difficult than it already was. I am left with no greater meaning or reason for this work’s existence.

As I pressed on I was less and less able to sink in to the reading. And I can only piece together that it is the fact that the back half of this book is hardly more than a travelogue and medical account without a narrative through line which is the cause. And perhaps the most aggravating component is that it could have been avoided. There are any numbers of editorial choices which could have been made which would have streamlined the narrative and not lead to a sometimes unreadable encyclopedic work (which is something the characters fight about on the page in reference to his posthumously published In the South Seas!) I found myself wishing time and time again that Ms. Horan had simply gathered up the litany of different dwellings and attempts to keep Louis alive into one very long post script or epilogue.

In case you think I’m being particularly precious about this being a long book (it does clock in at nearly 470 pages but that’s not typically something that bothers me) the reader follows the Stevensons to nearly a dozen different locations following their marriage. And we’ve already been with them for no less than 5 before that time. This is a couple always on the move, but other than wearing on the reader the same way it wears on Fanny and Louis, I don’t understand the reasoning behind including all of it in this work.

Beyond the sheer amount of information there were several authorial choices I was left questioning, foremost being the limited use of the actual archival letters of the people in question. At around the 325 page mark Horan uses one of Fanny’s letters to move the plot forward, just a few months. It is the first time this is done, and only one of about three times it happens. It is underused. Give me more of their writings and jump the story along! The other thing that never settled for me was the change in point of view. For most of the book, and nearly all of the beginning, we are with Fanny. And every so often for short chapter bursts we are with Louis. It never really works, and the timing of when to switch rarely felt natural.

So I’m left with much to say about a book that I wouldn’t recommend you finish. Read the first half, stop whenever you like, and get the rest of the details about Robert Louis Stevenson’s extraordinary life from another non-fictionalized source.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Sparrow (CBR7 #4)

Many moons ago I read Dreamers of the Day for CBR4. I loved the prose, and marveled at the rich character development even if my review isn’t as effusive (the book has grown on me over time). The author, Mary Doria Russell, has received positive reviews over the course of the many Cannonball Reads, so I decided that I wanted to jump back in with this author. I put The Sparrow on my library request list, and when the email came in that it was ready I picked it up and eventually got around to reading it, without reminding myself what the plot was (I tend to go back and work through an author’s oeuvre from the beginning after I’ve discovered I enjoy their work, and The Sparrow was Russell’s first book).

The Sparrow tells the story of a not too distant future (which we are nearly already in thanks to this book being nearly 20 years old) in which extraterrestrial life has been discovered on a not too far away planet and the team that assembles to make first contact. The story ping pongs back and forth between 2019 and 2060, and eventually the years in between. One of the time periods is full of hope, and one is full of despair. The despair of our main protagonist, a Jesuit priest named Emilio Sandoz was almost more than I could bear. But we’ll get to that.

Russell imagines a near future where the United States is no longer a predominant world power having lost two economic wars with Japan. Poverty is rampant, indentured servitude has returned to common practice and so-called futures brokers mine ghettos for promising young children to educate in return for large chunks of their lifetime income. Science and space travel are accelerated from the reality we know today, with near space asteroid mining and improved medical care. It is to this world, where specialists are hired to automate human work, that the Singers are first heard by a scientist about to be replaced. He shares the news with a ragtag assortment seemingly brought together by God, and the adventure is off.

But we hear about it after knowing it all ends in tears. And throughout much of the book, as we piece together the pain Emilio has suffered, and  are eventually told what happens to his friends we are constantly asked by the author to ruminate on what it means for our faith, and for the faith of the characters. We are also asked to examine the opinions we hold of our history’s own ancient explorers and what lengths groups like the Jesuits have gone to in the name of knowledge. What has been the cost?

I would suggest this book to almost anyone. Even though it has religious overtones (Judaic and Catholic) and is science fiction. It is written in poetry, and for that alone, and for the thinking it requires I am all in. However, you should be warned that this work might trigger you if you cannot handle the killing of young people and sexual abuse. That was perhaps the one thing that threw me off while reading, was that nearly all of the characters who interact with Emilio in 2060 to one extent or another engage in victim blaming. I think now upon finishing the book that it is supposed to show us that these characters cannot imagine what Emilio endured, but to this reader it made me angry at the characters several times, and often had me deciding to put off continuing into a 2060 chapter for fear of running into it again.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Equal Rites (CBR7 #3)

Folks, we need to talk about how I think I’m falling in love with Discworld. Equal Rites is only my second book in the series, but it made my heart happy while I was reading it, and considering I read it while preparing to go back to work after a two week vacation, that was a tall order.

In my review of Wyrd Sisters I mentioned that I wasn’t sure whether not picking this, the starter book for the Witches books, was going to be a problem. Having read it now, I think I was better off having read Wyrd Sisters first, since it gave me a bit of who Granny Weatherwax is, and this story gave me a more in depth experience with her, and her student Esk.

So what ‘s the story? It’s about a wizard on the brink of death who comes to the small town of Bad Ass to pass along his staff and power to the eighth son of an eighth son. The problem is, the son is a daughter, and no one has any idea what to make of that. Eskarina, possessed of significant innate magical power and the old wizard’s staff, ends up in the care of our lovely Granny Weatherwax, the witch of these environs. Granny, being Granny, distrusts wizard magic and decides to try to raise Esk as a witch. In Granny’s book, that means learning things, not just having magic, so Esk gets a thorough introduction to herbs and headology before she gets any training in magic. But Esk’s innate magic isn’t going to settle for that, and neither is her staff, so finally they set out for Ankh-Morpork and the Unseen University to try to enroll the first female wizard.

But that isn’t really what the story is about. Because this is Pratchett what we really have is spot-on satire of gender roles and institutionalized idiocy, all set in a venue we’re familiar with – school.  His satire works because he has love, and not scorn, for his subject — to wit, human nature and all its foolishness and foibles.  In Equal Rites no one can imagine a female wizard, or a male witch for that matter, because everyone’s ways of doing things are so different. Some of my favorite scenes are when view of the world collides with the ways of the Unseen University, culminating in a great twist on the magical battle from The Sword in the Stone.

While this is in many ways a stock fantasy (or any genre, really) coming of age story, it also has the Pratchett deliciousness of word play and humor. Pratchett has a talent for playing with the English language in subtle little ways so that the simplest sentence (“The conversation wandered away like a couple of puppies.”) had me giggling along as I read.

The only detractions I can really make are that occasionally the story races along and threatens to run away from you (seriously, how much time elapses in Ankh-Morpork, Pratchett?). I also thought the ending was a touch weak and just sort of plopped down there on the page. I literally turned the page expecting more, and alas there was none.  I’m sure I’ll be finding my way to Witches Abroad before too long.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Other Side of Us (CBR7 #2)

This holiday season I had flights and time to kill at the airport. I loaded my nook up with easy things to read, since you never know who is going to be sitting near you and whether or not you are going to be able to concentrate on a narrative while amongst so many interesting sorts. While preparing I came across The Other Side of Us which I had downloaded, cheaply since that’s all I do with nook books, at some point in the past 12 months and not gotten around to (I blame my 2014 love affair with Courtney Milan which will be continuing in 2015). So, I thought, why not give this romance title a try?

I almost stopped reading the book entirely in the first 50 pages. There wasn’t much that made me care about either Oliver or Mackenzie. I mean, there should’ve been. There is plenty in the way of melodrama what with Mackenzie’s near fatal car accident the previous year and Oliver’s discovery of his wife’s SIX YEARS OF INFIDELITY and the disillusion of his marriage. I put it down, read The Season for Love and Diana Peterfreund’s two novellas in the For Darkness Shows the Stars series and promptly took a reading break between CBR6 and CBR7. I started reading this one again on my flight home, and only really because I decided as part of my goal for a cannonball and a quarter (65 books read and reviewed this year) I also want to try to expand my reading habits and read something by an author from each continent, and Sarah Mayberry had set her book in outside Melbourne, Australia so I was hoping she was also from the land of Oz (she is!).

I’m glad I did return to this one, because the book picked up dramatically after those first couple chapters. While I have affection for romance reads and their characters, I am not always big on the tropes. There are lots and lots of authors, or more accurately – covers – that I stay away from. Or I wait to hear how Malin and Mrs. Julien feel about them before diving in. I was nervous that Ms. Mayberry was going to make The Other Side of Us about two broken people *magically* being healed by loving each other. And sexy fun times. But instead, she lets her characters stay broken. There’s no magical ‘fixing’ things aren’t made easy just because they can be. These are people facing real issues and the inconveniences of love poorly timed.

And did I mention that it’s funny? Because there are definite moments of levity throughout a relatively heavy read. While double checking Ms. Mayberry’s country of origin I also discovered that she had spent a chunk of her writing career on Australia’s longest running soap, Neighbours and it’s a fun little tidbit to know, since Mackenzie our female protagonist is a producer on just such a show in the novel. I was pleased with this one and read it in two sittings, so should you see it around, you might want to read it to.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Blue Girl (CBR7 #1)

The Blue Girl (Murder Squad, #2.5)

The Blue Girl is a short story, story 2.5 of The Murder Squad series. The Murder Squad books include Alex Grecian’s other books, The Yard which I read for Cannonball Read 4, and The Black Country which I read for Cannonball Read 6. There is a third full length book, The Devil’s Workshop which I’m planning to read later this year. The series focuses around the Murder Squad unit of Scotland Yard in the late 1880s as modern detective work and autopsy are starting to become standard.

Now that I’ve placed you in the proper context, The Blue Girl has us follow a day of investigation by one Mr. Colin Pringle, a blue bottle of the force whom we meet back in The Yard, as he discovers the identity of a girl found floating in the canal, her skin a delicate shade of blue. After initial investigations by Dr. Kingsley, and a push from the doctor’s daughter, Pringle is off on the hunt with nothing but a book of wedding superstitions.

The ending didn’t really woo me, although I admit I didn’t completely call it either, and that alone is really enough to keep me from rating this above three stars, but I would definitely suggest The Blue Girl to someone who is looking to get taste for Alex Grecian’s writing style and the general world of his other books. You don’t need to know anything about the other stories or the main characters, two of whom don’t appear in this one at all. A crisp short story, you really can’t go wrong with it.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.