Nikki Reviews All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

In this bestselling novel set at the collision of France and Germany during World War II, we meet Marie-Laure, a blind French girl living with her loving father in Paris, and Werner Pfennig, a technically savvy orphan with a talent for fixing radios. Marie-Laure spends her days in the Museum of Natural History, home of a mysterious diamond and where her father serves as a locksmith. Werner’s skills land him at a Hitler Youth academy, known for it’s brutal training.

I’m a bit torn about this book and my opinion on it. The craft of the writing was delectable, and his descriptions of the cities and sounds from the POV of the blind girl were impressive, to say the least. The research was top-notch, and the emotions it evoked stayed with me and I was always irritated when I had to stop reading it, it pulled me in so.

But there’s something missing and I have a hard time putting my finger on it. We are following these two children through the rise of Nazi Germany and the invasion of France, and there are multiple characters that are given a POV throughout the story. This was a bit confusing when it first happened, but flowed well throughout the rest of the narrative. However, it feels like the story was going toward this crescendo, all these characters playing their parts surrounding this mysterious diamond, coming together slowly over time, but then…

There’s an event that we get flashes of from the very beginning: the bombing of Saint-Malo, France. This is the endpoint the author is taking us to, or so I thought. And when we do get there it is powerful, and I enjoyed the emotionally difficult road that took me there. But then I almost wish it had stopped, with the promise of an uncertain future and an unknowable fate for Marie-Laure and Werner. But it doesn’t. It keeps going to meet up with the secondary characters that were certainly integral in the plot, continuing to follow the same journey, unbeknownst to them.

I just don’t think I understood the point of the continuation. Was it for closure? To find out what happens to the intelligent blind girl Marie-Laure? To revisit the secondary characters I found so fascinating? But to me, the most interesting part of the story was Marie-Laure and the circumstances surrounding Werner’s rise in the Hitler youth, watching these two children that are caught up in the machine of “progress”. I was bearing witness to those daring to fight against the rise of a tyrannical dictator, in addition to those who got swept up under the guise of patriotic duty (whether involuntarily or with great abandon).

Saying this, I’m sure if it had stopped right then in the battle-strewn streets of Saint-Malo, I would have said “BUT THEN WHAT HAPPENS.” So, take that for what it’s worth. Overall I did love reading this book, and it kept me solidly enthralled with every turn of the page. I am a sucker for stories daring to humanize those we want to paint with a broad stroke of ENEMY versus ALLY. I love books that live in the gray area between “what is right” and “what is wrong,” and the many conflicts that arise from this juxtaposition. I still highly recommend it, for those interested in such a read.

You can download a sample or purchase All the Light We Cannot See by clicking here.

Cheri Reviews The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon

My buddy, Andy, has been telling me how much she loves the work of Robert McCammon for a few years now. I never really cared to give him a try. Shapeshifter spys, post-apocalyptic tales, and ghost stories haven’t really been my preference over the past few years so I’ve not paid much attention to poor Andy’s suggestions of Mr. McCammon’s work. Well, that changed a week ago when we were looking for something to discuss on the next Cocktail Hour podcast. I told Andy she could pick the book we would read and discuss. I have to be honest and tell you that I subtly tried to talk her into picking something else but she stuck to her guns and I resigned myself to slogging through a long-ass boring book. I was just thankful that I had Audible credits available. How wrong I was. How very, very wrong. Before I go further, here’s the blurb:

On the eve of D-Day, a British secret agent with unique powers goes behind Nazi lines Michael Gallatin is a British spy with a peculiar talent: the ability to transform himself into a wolf. Although his work in North Africa helped the Allies win the continent in the early days of World War II, he quit the service when a German spy shot his lover in her bed. Now, three years later, the army asks him to end his retirement and parachute into occupied Paris. A mysterious German plan called the Iron Fist threatens the D-Day invasion, and the Nazi in charge is the spy who betrayed Michael’s lover. The werewolf goes to France for king and country, hoping for a chance at bloody vengeance.

It just didn’t sound like something I’d want to read. But regardless of my apprehension, it grabbed me and didn’t let me go. I hated to hit the pause button to go to work, pick up my child, or go to sleep. I dreamed about wolves and nazis and thought about what was going to happen next and kept modifying my predictions about what Iron Fist was. I dropped a tear at one point when one character discovered that he lost his family to Allied bombing. My stomach roiled during the descriptions of some of the “entertainment” on display for some upper echelon Nazis and friends. But mostly I cheered when the bad guys got what they had coming to them. There were lots of bad guys so there were lots of ass kickings to go around.

Probably the weakest part of the book, for me, was the wolf-shifter part. It was very interesting and I enjoyed it, to be sure, but there was just so much going on during the WWII portion of the book that I hated to have to wait to find what happened next! I guess calling Michael’s younger years weak is unfair, maybe it’s the slow part. The book wasn’t perfect; there were some words and phrases that were over-used and Michael was mostly the perfect man – I mean he even performed oral sex without being asked! I was ready for the book to end when it did but not because I just couldn’t take any more – the story was over and everything was wrapped up and I was ready to wish them all well and move on.

I’ve already purchased Swan Song. A massive “thank you” to Andy for picking such a good book for us to read. I’ll probably not doubt you again. Maybe. Probably not. You can download a sample or purchase a copy of The Wolf’s Hour by clicking here.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright is not your standard lesfic. This is a fascinating novel that spans an eleven year period, from the filming of the Triumph of Will during the 1934 German Party Congress in Nuremberg to the end of WW II in 1945. Saracen blends historical and fictional characters seamlessly and brings authenticity to the story, focusing on the impacts of this time on “regular, normal people” who find themselves dragged into events that they neither expected nor wanted and how it transformed each of them for better or for worse. Tyger Tyger isn’t a book about blame or right and wrong – it is a book that stays in the gray, raising a number of questions and issues in the reader’s mind that will stay with you long after you close the cover.

For this review, both MEC and Nikki read the book and discussed it in a rather disjointed IM session that has since been scrubbed of all Nikki’s profanity and reorganized a bit to make it a bit easier to follow. Our conversation was spirited as there are so many things in this book that we wanted to discuss and many of the topics led us down some rather interesting conversation trails. Hopefully we’ve captured that.

MEC: First off, I really enjoyed the book. I didn’t read the back blurb because I didn’t want to spoil anything and I liked Saracen’s other books. The Swastika on the cover let me know when/where this was going to be set but I had no clue how she was going to approach it. So going in, I didn’t really know what to expect – and found myself surprised again and again while I made my way through it. There was an element of romance, but this is more of a historical that has lesbian and gay characters rather than a lesbian or gay romance that is set in a historical timeframe.

NIKKI: I actually read the blurb when I first saw the book but didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up to read. I’m glad I didn’t, as I felt a few important plot points were given away in the blurb. I agree the romance is a minor plot point. The author does an excellent job focusing primarily on the arcs of the characters set against the tumultuous timeline. The book is very visual, with nods to photography and propaganda films that were integral to the Nazi party. One of the biggest images that happens near the beginning (after the Triumph of Will) is the portrayal of 13 individuals in a photo reminiscent of the Last Supper. These characters will be revisited throughout the story, but most of the book is told from Katja’s perspective, with some time devoted to all four major characters. However, the perspective does shift eventually to nearly all the original 13 characters, which I found jarring at first, but got used to. I can understand why the author chose to jump to the different perspectives, as all characters in the story undergo some form of transformation in order to survive. Whether it be through silence/ambivalence, subterfuge, forced recruitment, or outright terrorism.

MEC: I totally agree. Saracen uses some wonderful imagery and symbolism throughout the book. One of the things I found particularly thought-provoking was the debate of art versus propaganda. Leni Riefenstahl and her crew all believed that they were creating art – images, symbolism and the themes of the Volk. But these movies were commissioned by and were a powerful tool of the Nazi party – fueling the nationalist propaganda and promoting the idea of the superiority and power that the Germans had and should have. Words and images have so much power – how much responsibility do those who create them have, and how easily they can be used irresponsibly. And it’s still happening today – turn on any 24 hour news show or documentary and there’s an agenda. The book spans such a long time (over ten years) and touches on only some of the key events. Luckily, or unluckily, this is one of the most documented times in history – there is a tremendous amount of information, opinion, interpretation on the rise and fall of the Third Reich. I actually spent a fair amount of time googling and following links and was impressed at how much she wove in to the story – and although it is a timeframe we all know about, there were details I found in the book and in my searches that I didn’t know and my own further reading left me even more disturbed.

NIKKI: I agree that the use of propaganda/imagery is a timeless idea, very applicable to every generation, particularly today. I really enjoyed how the author was able to demonstrate a variety of perspectives in the characters’ responses to the Nazi agenda. Some embraced the ideals wholeheartedly, while others ignored the ugliness while supporting the positives of a flourishing economy. Still more fought in any way they felt they could. What I found most interesting was the author’s ability to show that it can be difficult to find “right” and “wrong” in times of war. Predators can easily become victims, and the innocent can easily become the beast. As stated in the book, “The company chaplain keeps praying for a time when the lion will lie down with the lamb. But he doesn’t want to accept the terrible fact that the lion IS the lamb.”

Can we truly blame someone who is forced into serving the Third Reich? It’s easy to hate those that willingly and knowingly inflict pain on others. But what about those that must choose between their life and a strangers? And can anyone really know what choice they would make unless they were facing down the barrel of a gun? The author fully explores these complicated issues admirably, and I found her writing very impressive. That isn’t to say there weren’t issues. The shifting points of view really could be quite distracting, and throughout the book, characters were able to find each other way too conveniently for my comfort. But overall, a brilliantly written novel.

MEC:  What can I add that Nikki hasn’t already stated so eloquently? If not for my need to have the last word, I’d leave you with Nikki’s final thoughts.   As I stated before – this is a historical novel that has elements of romance; but, it also has elements of suspense, horror, pathos and it gives the reader quite a bit to think about.   It’s fast-paced and I found it difficult to put down because; although I know at a high level what was going to happen next from a historical perspective, I had to know what was going to happen to the main characters – and some of the things that happen are heartbreaking.  This is an excellent book that easily blurs the line between lesfic and mainstream – I definitely recommend it.

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright by Justine Saracen