All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all the light
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a very highly acclaimed novel that will once again place me in the small category of reviewers who will read this book and go…”huh?”. Is it good. Sure. Is it all its cracked up to be. No. In fact, there are a handful of books that are set during the same period with the same like minded protagonists that I would put well ahead of this book. So get out your pitchforks and torches, here comes my lukewarm review of All The Light We Cannot See.

Okay, so there is this girl and of course she’s a teenage girl because nothing ever happens to a teenage girl that she can’t get the best of right? Oh and she is blind and she is Jewish in occupied France during World War II so the Nazis are not crazy about her to begin with. She lives in Paris with her Dad who works at a museum and there is this rare diamond that is cursed and then the Dad takes the diamond; not for himself of course but to keep it away from the Germans. He moves with his blind daughter and the diamond because that doesn’t put her in any danger right? They move in with his brother who is suffering from PTSD from the first World War and his French resistance maid. Again, very safe for his blind teenage daughter. He of course, the Dad that is, gets captured and imprisoned by the Germans and is questioned about the missing diamond. During this time the French resistance maid decides that a teenage blind girl is the perfect cover for transferring messages to be broadcast on the radio. Because, you know, that doesn’t put the blind teenage girl in any danger.

Oh wait, did I mention there was this boy? Yes, a young orphan German boy who, with his sister grows up in an orphanage. But he gifted in how to use a radio and how to find people who use radios. He is drafted into the German army, which his sister grows to hate him for, because somehow that was his choice. He watches as his best friend is beaten and broken because he is weak and his own value is due to his ability to work a radio is used by those who are his superiors. He ends up in France listening to a young girl read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and her own cry for help.

The two come together and the boy saves the blind girl but there are no happy endings here. Because war is bad and everything about war is bad. The boy dies. The girl goes on to be a professor but loses her whole family and the sister who hated the boy gets raped.

Okay, there you go. Pretty depressing. Realistic, perhaps for a time but the story pours tragedy upon tragedy and bleeds any sense of hope out of the reader. You find yourself not wanting there to be a herioc and good resolution but for the novel just to end. End their suffering and misery so as a reader, you can end yours.

There are other books about this period that are much better. The German Girl by Armando Correa comes to mind as does the Girl From Venice by Martin Cruz Smith. Both of these I would recommend before this one.

Overhyped and well under delivered.

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Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

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Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva is an enchanting and engrossing tale whose premise held the prospect of greatness. I love Dickens and I really love A Christmas Carol and I really, really wanted to love Mr. Dickens and His Carol….

For Charles Dickens, Christmas has been a grand time. His novels have won him acclaimed and notoriety. But his latest, Martin Chuzzlewit is struggling to attain the popularity of his previous work and Dickens finds himself in the unenviable position of having his debts called in. If that happens he will find himself ruined. His publishers come up with a solution. A ridiculous and impossible solution. Come up with a new story within a month, a Christmas tale for the holiday or they will call in his debts and ruin him.

Dickens has no choice but to accept. With his own father borrowing money against his name and his family, with a newborn, spending to make this a glorious Christmas season; Dickens knows he must somehow write this Christmas story. Only, Charles Dickens is feeling anything but the Christmas spirit. He is feeling used and unappreciated by the very souls he provides for. His partners in business, the very publishers who have gotten rich off of his prior tales are now looking to fleece him when his latest tale is not turning into the profit the others have.

“…Well,’ said Forster, ‘it is…interesting.’
‘Yes. It is, isn’t it?’
‘But when does the Christmas bit start?’
‘Soon, I’m sure.’
‘It’s just…a tad grim for what’s meant to be…a cheerful time of year,’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, your Scrooge is a dreadful man.’
‘Not so dreadful.’
‘And this getup of yours, why, your Ebenezer fellow looks exactly as you do now.’
‘I inspired myself!;
‘To write a recluse? Who hates his neighbors, bemoans his friends, and despises his relatives?’
‘They’re hateful people. They hound him for money. The poor man is tormented by his tribe of dependents, who all want a bit of a piece of him and cannot make a single step in the world without his aid…”

Dickens, angry and abandoned, leaves his home and goes back to the small room where his stories first began. There he finds inspiration in the life of a young woman and her son, an actress who reminds him of the joy of his creations. Of the process of telling the story and of the promise of Christmas itself. But can Dickens find the magic once again and in time to keep the debtors from ruining him.

“…What harm can come of a ghost?’ she’d asked, here, in this very room. But it wasn’t a question at all. It was the answer…”

I wanted to like this story. I really, really did. I wanted to stand on rooftops and sing its praises. I really, really did. I wanted to revel in the creation of Fred and Bob Crachet and Scrooge and the rest. I really, really did. But instead, I got to listen to the fretting and bemoaning of an acclaimed author whose one bad book spells his doom.

There are twists here. Clever turns that might have made the story more enjoyable if Dickens had not overshadowed them. And he did. This book does the exact opposite of what A Christmas Carol does. It is not about the spirit of Christmas as much as it seems to be about a successful book providing the funds to pay for a wonderful Christmas.

A wonderful premise that the book just does not measure up to.

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithful
Faithful by Alice Hoffman is a tale of remorse, regret, and eventual redemption. It is a love story but of the most tragic and difficult kind. A tale of learning to love yourself and in doing so, find a value in who you are.

Shelby Richmond is a normal teenage girl growing up in Long Island. Beautiful, with good grades and a bright future, she is the girl everyone wants to be. Until the night when a tragic car accident leaves her best friend in a coma and Shelby drowning in a world of guilt and rage. Guilt that will consume her every waking moment and a rage at herself for what she has done.

“…There are dozens of high school girls who lock themselves in their bedrooms on the anniversary night, their hands dusted with luminous sand, prayers on their lips, their hearts heavy with sorrow. Each one thanks her lucky stars she is not Helene, even though Helene was the beautiful girl who could do as she pleased, the one every boy wanted to date and every girl wanted to be like. But that was then. Now even the outcasts-the fat, the unattractive, the lonely, the sorrowful, the lost-are grateful to be who they are, at least for a single evening…”

The crash left Helene in a coma she would never recover from and Shelby, with barely a scratch. What follows is a life lived in pursuit of the death she did not receive that night. The scholarship to college put aside, the drug addictions, the sexual abuse, the path of self loathing and self destruction as Shelby tries to punish herself for what happened to Helene. Even the love of a friend cannot save Shelby from her own self hatred.

“…This isn’t love.’ Shelby tells him finally.
‘Oh yeah?’ He says it with real bitterness. He doesn’t sound like the Ben that she knows. Shelby feels a shiver of fear when she sees the look on his face. She’s probably ruined him, turned a sweet, loving person into a cynical bastard. ‘How do you know?’
Because I’m not worth it, she wants to say. Because you knew me at my worst point, when I was bald and desperate. Because I was never good enough for you. Because my mother told me love is everything.
‘I just know,’ she answers.
‘Well, thanks for including me in this decision’, Ben says. ‘It just means our breakup is exactly like the rest of our relationship. All about you…”

As Shelby tries to destroy herself, she begins to learn that the world is not about one night and perhaps, who she is as a person is not only about that night. Slowly, Shelby begins to realize that she is not that horrible person she has always believed herself to be and she doesn’t need to be punished for the accident. That perhaps what has happened to Helene is not her fault.

“…I wish it had been me instead of Helene,’ Shelby says. ‘I should have died.’
She turns and slaps her. The slap is so hard Shelby hits her head against the window. ‘Mom!’ she says, stunned.
‘Don’t you dare say that!’ Sue cries. “Don’t even think it! Do you hear me? You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Shelby, don’t take that away from me. You’re my gift…”

Faithful is a powerful emotional novel of survival and the overwhelming guilt that can come with it. But don’t let the synopsis fool you. It is also an incredible tale of becoming, of growth, and of the eventual decisions to allow yourself the hardest gift of all. The right to be happy.

Alice Hoffman is a treasure. She is easily one of the most prolific writers around and none of her books can be accused of being copycats of one another. No, instead what you have is a novel that is uniquely its own. Whether it be teen angst, a colonial forbidden romance, a religious tale of freedom and victory or a good story about what it is to live with the guilt of killing your best friend. Whether it is your fault or not.

If you were to ask me which Alice Hoffman novel to read, my answer would be simply. Pick the one that says “Alice Hoffman” on the cover.

A really good read.

Burn Town by Jennifer McMahon

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Burntown by Jennifer McMahon is another of those novels where the author is exploring different genres and boundaries and ends up with something a mixed bag. Confusing and stunted at times, it is only the intense storytelling of McMahon that keeps this book moving along.

Eva’s father, Miles, was an inventor of sorts. Out of the little workshop behind their house, the strangest things would come to life. Until one day her father creates a machine that enables him to speak with the dead.

“…Mother?’ he says, fearful. ‘Are you there?’
Yes, a voice comes back, louder and female, swimming through waves of electrical interference. It’s a voice he recognizes. A voice he’s heard in his dreams.
His heart jolts, and what he says next isn’t what he’s planned for and rehearsed, but it’s what he most needs to know.
‘Who is he, Mother?’ Miles says into the machine. ‘Who murdered you?’
A dull roar of static.
‘Please,’ he says.
And then, in a crackling whisper, she tells him.
‘No,’ he says, voice trembling, stomach churning. ‘That’s not possible.’
She repeats the name, and then, she’s gone…”

The Dead keep secrets too and now, with the knowledge of who had murdered his mother, Miles is set on a course of action that will cost him everything and Eva and her mother everything as well. Now in hiding, with her mother gone, Eva must unravel the secrets that her father uncovered before its too late. Because the killer who murdered her Grandmother is now after her and there is no one else left.

This book goes from Science Fiction Horror to a mystery to mysticism and then back to fantasy and then Science Fiction and then somehow, a mish mash of them all. But in doing so, the gears do not shift smoothly and you are left with a tale that is disjointed and with gaps of unconnected tissue which leaves it to simply bleed out.

Jennifer McMahon is a terrific storyteller, but Burntown did not work for me.

The Secret Room by Sandra Block

secret room
The Secret Room by Sandra Block is book #3 in the Zoe Goldman series and in this tale you can see the talent and depth of Block as she weaves another mystery of emotional, mental, and physical drama. Zoe Goldman is a terrific character and perhaps one of her more endearing qualities is that is as far from the caricature of a heroine or detective as one can get.

“…Aubrey is silent then and finally answers with an embarrassed nod. Maloney snickers, and Destiny pats her arm. ‘You want to rest in the quiet room for a little bit?’ She asks, Aubrey nods again, her nose runny. She looks like a little girl, crying over a lost snowball fight.
Destiny gives her another pat. ‘It’ll be okay. You’ll see.’
‘Please don’t put me in solitary,’ Aubrey begs.
‘Don’t you worry about that right now,’ Destiny says, cooing.
‘I can’t go in there.’
‘If you would cut this crap, we wouldn’t have to send you there,’ Maloney says. I’m thinking much the same, but it’s not the time or place to discuss more effective coping skills.
‘I can’t go back there. The room.’ Aubrey is talking to herself now. ‘He kept me in a room…”

Zoe Goldman has had far from the smoothest careers. She has joined the team of Psychiatrists at the Buffalo Correctional Facility, treating the prisoners and trying to rebuild her shattered career. But Zoe’s patients are beginning to die. Some are suicides and some are accidents. Now the rumors are beginning that perhaps Dr. Goldman is intentionally helping her more hopeless cases to a better place. That she is an angel of death, or instead a seriously incompetent doctor.

But Zoe doesn’t realize yet is that someone is targeting her. Someone who knows all about Zoe’s past and all about her insecurities.

“…Razors, rope, gas or pills?
I stare at the message in dull confusion as my brain wakes up. The number is unfamiliar, a long-distance number. I think you are texting the wrong person, I text back.
No. It’s a riddle for you.
I sit up straight in bed now, reading it again.
Who is this?
Razor, rope, gas or pills. Can you guess?
The text looms on the screen while I decide what to do. My fingers tremble as I type. I’m not playing games. Stop texting me or I will call the police.
I’m not playing games either. But if you can’t solve it, I’ll give you the answer.
There is a pause then, and I find myself gripping the phone waiting.
Razors, rope, gas or pills?
How many patients will you kill…”

It would be a mistake to think that this novel is solely about Zoe Goldman or about the deaths of the inmates. There is the underlying mystery that is Zoe and what remains of her biological family. The brother whose guilt at not protecting her has crippled him and her sister, Sofia. Her sister who murdered their mother, burned their home and has attempted to kill Zoe several times. Sofia who is now asking for forgiveness.

Zoe is fractured and at times held together by sheer force of will. But still in her is the resolve that only a survivor can have. But will it be enough to save her patients from the killer among them, and what does her sister Sofia have to do with what is happening at the prison.

This series is one of my favorites. Each novel is a stand alone tale on its own. But to really get a sense of the characters, it is best to begin at, well, the beginning and then work your way to this tale.

A really good read!

The Roses of May by Dot Hutchison

roses of may
Roses of May by Dot Hutchison is the sequel to The Butterfly Garden; easily one of my surprise favorites of the past year, but it is not a sequel as well. It is it’s own tale of suspense and terror and survival in which characters of the prior novel make and appearance. Some more important than others. What Roses of May is, quite simply, is one of the best books that you have yet to discover.

“…So when one of her brothers comes by a bit later, worried when she didn’t return home right away, he finds her laid out before the altar, purple-throated white lilies in a halo about her head, her clothing neatly folded and stacked on a pew, the hat atop the pile and her plain buckle shoes beside. The gash across her throat is a clean line, because she couldn’t struggle while unconscious.
No pain, No fear.
She won’t have the chance to fall like Darla Jean, won’t face the that temptation and betrayal.
Zoraida Bourret will always be a good girl…”

Four months have passed since the Garden exploded and all the young girls and women, once known as the Butterflies, have been freed from their captors. For FBI agents Brandon Eddison, Victor Hanoverian, and Mercedes Ramirez are working through wreckage of that case. But, in their own way, the Butterflies are healing and now the agents can concentrate on another case. One that has been years in the making and one that they are no closer to solving.

“…The rest of our family died around midnight, only it took a while to know for sure. Mom and I were phoenixes, rising in our own way. Dad just burned and burned until he didn’t.
The public steals tragedies from victims. It sound strange, I know, but I think you may be one of the few people who’ll understand what I mean by that. These things happened to us, to our loved ones, but it hits the news and suddenly everyone with a TV or a computer feels like they’re entitled to our reactions and recoveries.
They’re not…”

Girls are turning up dead, laid at the altar of a church, their throats slit open and surrounded by flowers.

Priya Stravasti’s sister was killed years ago, her body laid at a church altar and surround by flowers. But now, years later, it seems that the killer is taking an interest in Priya. Flowers are showing up at her door and the killer seems to be getting closer and closer. The agents have kept in contact with Priya and her mother, but for now all they can do is surveillance. Somehow, they will need to draw the killer out.

“…She looks off into the stretch of trees that backs the playground, running along in a thick strip between this row of houses and the ones behind them. She hates the woods, and it took almost two years and a night of far too much tequila for her to tell them why. Vic might have already known, actually, if he had access to her background, but he’d never made mention of it if he had. Most of her nightmares were born in the woods, something that may never leave her.
It’s never stopped her from running straight into the trees if there’s a chance in hell the kid they’re looking for is alive in there.
‘Yes,’ she says eventually, drawing out the word. ‘I suppose I am.’
Because there’s the law, and there’s justice, and they’re not always the same thing…”

Priya knows that she is the key to catch her sister’s killer. But just how far is she willing to go and can the Agents protect her from herself?

Roses of May is a thrilling ride of survival and justice. And the thin line between justice and vengeance. Priya drives this tale and she may be easily the best female character written in the last year. Her interaction with the Agents and then the Butterflies and even the Veterans are something of a marvel. Dot Hutchison has found a niche her with these characters and her ability to make broken and traumatized women into a force to be reckoned with is entertaining and uplifting.

Don’t make a mistake, this is dark and disturbing and a very haunting tale of murder most cruel. the reasoning and mental state of the murderer makes a reader take a second look at those around them. It reminds me that the worst things that have ever been done are usually done with good intentions. Except of course, with the one with the intentions is a madman.

Roses of May is more than a good thriller. It is one of the best novels you have not read.

Pick it up!

Strange Weather by Joe Hill

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Strange Weather is the newest offering from Joe Hill and for fans this will be a treat! But more importantly, for readers who have not read Joe Hill as of yet, this may be the best book to start with. Strange Weather is a collection of novellas, not short stories, that are not quite horror tales but would be better said to be fantasy/sci-fi/dramas. They are, despite their settings, visions of the human condition. Humans cast into incredible circumstances.

This collection contains four tales –

“Snapshot” is a coming of age story where a young outcast boy finds himself waging a battle for the soul of his nanny against a tattooed creep with a Polaroid Instant Camera that can rob the memories of those it takes photos. The power of this camera is something the boy himself finds alluring.

“Aloft” is the story of a young man who, despite massive anxiety attempts his first parachute jump. A jump that lands him on a cloud that is somehow solid and has the power to turn its rolling mists into all the man desires, if only he would stay in the clouds forever.

“Loaded” is the poignant tale of a mall shooting and the aftermath of all that take part. From the killer, to the hero, to the police and reporters. It is troubling and tragic and horribly human. It will be a tale that regardless of your politics, will not leave you untouched by its drama.

My favorite of this group is “Rain”. On a ordinary day in Boulder, Colorado, the skies open up and rain crystal nails, impaling and killing thousands. What follows is a journey of pain and love as a young woman named Honeysuckle finds herself a survivor of the strange event. But dead is the woman she loves and now she must travel on foot to give the news of her lover’s death to her father. But what she finds on the way is danger and dark humanity as the city tries to survive this apocalyptic event. This short tale is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It is deep and introspective as well as a comment on our current social and political condition.

Novellas are terrific forms of story. Long enough to develop the characters and background, but short enough to keep the story moving at a quick pace. This is perfect for Hill whose characters are very often his calling card, whether they are vampires or human beings caught in the circumstances so quickly spiraling out of their control. The stories themselves are enticing and the reader will find themselves delving into this world of shape shifting solid clouds to the horror of a man with a gun and a bellyful of anger.

For some, the comparison of Joe Hill to his father will also be the measuring stick. That’s okay. Hill can handle that. With Strange Weather, he brings us four tales that are as good as any his father has produced in his collections of short novels.

If you have never read Joe Hill, his novels Fireman and NOS4A2 may be daunting as they are large books in scope and size. Horns is shorter and very good, do not judge by the crappy movie version and my first taste of Hill was The Heart-Shaped Box which made me swear that Edgar Allan Poe had been reincarnated. So the newbie, this collection may be perfect and if it is your first introduction to Joe Hill, I envy you the beginning of a wonderful journey.

A really great read!