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All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See

Set during World War II in Brittany, Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winner is a gem of a novel, relating the tale of two young protagonists who fight for survival.

Marie-Laure is a twelve year old blind girl who leaves Paris with her father to the coastal town of St. Malo.  Surrounded by a caring community and an anxiety ridden great-uncle, the girl is the recipient of many kindnesses (ie, light).  Her father lovingly crafts a model of the town to help her “see,”  and she also received a large braille version of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea which helps her escape from her war-torn reality.  Even her Uncle faces his fears in order to protect her, when Marie’s father is arrested.

In Germany, an orphaned boy (Werner) also has moments of light.  As a young boy, he becomes fascinated with science as a result of radio broadcasts from France.  He desperately wants to escape a life in the mines, and is able to when his scientific aptitude sends him to a special school for Hitler Youth.  Eventually he is sent to war and Werner realizes that everything he was taught at the school was wrong.  That the bravest among his classmates was not among the boys who did as they were told, but those who dared to resist.

I loved the metaphors throughout this novel, and the connection that Werner and Marie-Laure share.  Beautifully written!

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
530 pages

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If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende

If You Lived Here I'd Know Your Name

When I picked up this memoir of Alaska, I was really hoping for a book along the lines of Rick Bass’s Winter: Notes from Montana, but instead of an artful reflection of an arctic wonderland and unique, hearty people, it felt more like a family member talking about the latest gossip in her town.

In fairness, Lende is the local newspaper’s reporter on regional events and the crafter of obituaries, but she never really delved very deep into her reasons for making Alaska her home.  Every chapter seemed to describe another death.  Seriously.  Death is a common occurrence in the northernmost state due to plane crashes, hunting accidents and drownings.  There were lots of those referenced in this memoir, with a few from cancer or conjunctive heart failure thrown in.

If you want a book that shares one woman’s Alaska lifestyle in a coffee-clutch way, this book is for you.  It wasn’t what I was looking for.

2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
296 pages

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When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans

Christopher Banks is a famous London detective, who, having solved countless mysteries, turns his attention to the one mystery he always wanted resolved:  the disappearance of his parents in Shanghai when he was a young boy of eleven.

Ishiguro pens a well-crafted novel full of twists and turns, playing with his readers as his main character’s memory plays tricks on him.  I loved the setting of old Shanghai at the height of British occupation.  The opium trade was in full swing and warlords were battling for power.  I found this fascinating and made for a great story.

Excellent novel!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2000
336 pages

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The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

The Corpse Walker

Between the years 1993 and 2006, Liao Yiwu conducted a series of interviews in China, collecting oral histories that present a view of people from the lowest rungs of Chinese society.  The Corpse Walker is the amalgamation of those interviews, often done at great peril to the Liao, because the Chinese government does not want people to know that the “new ” China is often not an improvement for some of it’s citizens.

I’ve read a lot about China, but this collection of interviews is especially enlightening because of the ability to glimpse intimate details of a Chinese person’s life.  Liao interviewed “a professional mourner, a human-trafficker, a leper, an abbot, a retired government official, a former landowner, a mortician, a feng shui master, a former Red Guard, a political prisoner, a village teacher, a blind street musician, and many others” (from the book jacket).

A powerful and disturbing book, yet hopeful in that there are those who are willing to risk recrimination for getting the truth out.  Perhaps reform will eventually come to China.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2008
320 pages

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The Gravity Of Birds by Tracy Guzman

The Gravity of Birds

In 1972, two families were renting cabins on a summer lake.  The Kessler sisters develop a relationship with young Thomas Bayber, a budding artist who captures their images and their hearts.

Years later, Bayber is a famous artist who retired twenty-years earlier.  He tells his agent that there is a previously unrecorded canvas that he commissions him to sell.  Upon seeing the canvas of Bayber with the Kessler sisters, the clever agent realizes that there are two more panels to this piece and insists they be found so that the triptych can be presented together.  The search for the missing panels begins a journey into Bayber and the Kessler sister’s past, which not only makes for a great mystery, but a terrific page-turner as well.

I don’t typically enjoy books about relationships, but Guzman does a wonderful job weaving prose, the subject of art, and ornithology into a work of fiction that I found hard to put down.  Wonderful first novel by Tracy Guzman!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
295 pages

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The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell

The Maid's Version

Woodrell sets out to tell a story about a 1929 dance hall fire that claims the lives of forty-two victims. He does this through snippets of information told by a maid, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, to her grandson.

Set in West Table, Missouri, Woodrell’s descriptions of the place seemed visually sparse.  Vignettes such as “The house was a dinky box, on a street of dinky boxes” and “the houses had been built so cheek-by-jowl that in warm weather we could hear conversations, snores, sometimes farts or lovemaking inside houses in two directions,”  helped me to believe Woodrell aimed to give a feel of a place, rather than an optical view of it.

That said, Woodrell is a gifted poet, but I did find the chapters rather disjointed and the characters, while fleshed out, were distant from the reader.  I never cared about any of them, and found it difficult to be pulled into the story.  Even though Woodrell hinted that foul play caused the fire, by the time it was revealed, it was too late because I had already lost interest.  It’s too bad, because the premise was a good one.

2 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
164 pages

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