All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeI’m pretty sure we’ve established in this space that I love a good World War II book, and especially one of this recent spate of “World War II books about places that are not London or a concentration camp”. I’m not sure exactly what it is that fascinates me and pretty much everyone else about this time period, but it probably has something to do with the whole good vs. evil thing and how, ideally, this is a time never to be repeated and from which we can learn many dozens of things. One hopes.

The first part of that, the good vs. evil thing, is of course not that simple, and this idea is explored pretty interestingly in this book. We have two main protagonists: a young blind girl living in France with her father, and a young mechanically-minded boy living as an orphan with his sister in Germany. Both leave their regular lives very quickly, she to coastal France to help her father hide a very valuable stone, and he to a military school to become a good German soldier.

The girl’s story is rather a bog-standard World War II story, with the hiding and the rationing and the French Resistance and et cetera. Doerr tries to dress it up with this valuable stone business, but that’s a really weird and unnecessary side plot so let’s pretend that never happened.

The boy’s story, on the other hand, is more of a bog-standard coming-of-age boarding school story, except for the whole “becoming a good German soldier” thing, and I found that absolutely fascinating as someone who also loves a good boarding school story. Trying to do well in school and fit in and not succumb to peer pressure are such universal sentiments, and it’s hard not to sympathize with this boy who really just wants a better life and this is his only way to get one.

Another big idea explored in this book is the importance of the radio (and communication in general) during the war and beyond. It’s amazing that in this time, broadcast radio is so ubiquitous that the Germans are confiscating radios and creating their own stations and broadcasts to keep people from knowing what’s really happening, but meanwhile resistance fighters were communicating via the radio and German soldiers have to take radio receivers out and scan the dial and hope to happen upon the right channel at the right time to hear the right words that would help them take down their enemies. It’s not unlike the current ubiquity of the Internet and the way that some countries censor it or create their own version of it to give to their people. It’s fascinating and also incredibly frustrating to see history repeat itself like this.

I will admit, though, that for all that intriguing content I didn’t end up being super into the book. That stone business is kind of really very awful, as I said, but also I had a hard time getting into Doerr’s writing. The best thing he does in the book, I think, is make his chapters very short and snappy so that when the point of view changes you keep reading to get back to that other narrator, and then the other, and so on until you’ve read the whole book and are like, huh.

On the plus side, after discussing this twice at book club I can say that it is a very good pick for your next book club meeting, as you will get a lot of different opinions on the book and there are a lot of different aspects of the book to talk about. I’m not sure I’d read it again, but I’d definitely go to another book club or two about it!

Recommendation: Read it and then make all your friends talk about it with you.

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Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the AtticTrue story: the other day I was looking at my calendar to see what was up for the week, and I noticed a bright red appointment labeled BOOK CLUB! the next evening. I said to myself, oh, crap, I have book club tomorrow?! and dashed to the shelf to make sure I had even obtained the book. Luckily, I had, and even more luckily, the book is only 129 pages long, so I settled in on the couch with plans to read it in a couple of hours.

Several hours later, I was done, not because the pages were secretly printed in tiny font or because I wanted to savor the words, but because I kept stopping every chapter or so to go do ANYTHING else. Make dinner? Sure! Play an hour or two of video games? Yes, please! Read this book? Ugh, fine, but only because I have book club in less than thirty hours.

It is possible, well, probable, that I came at this book very poorly. If I had read it knowing anything about it, I would have had a better mindset for the unconventional narration style and maybe wouldn’t have been annoyed nearly as much.

See, the book is written in sort of a first-person-plural point of view, but not quite exactly that. The narrator says “we” and “us” all over the place &mash; “We had long black hair”, “We often wondered: would we like them?”, “Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto” — but it’s a general, vague, hypothetical “we” instead of a specific one.

And of course there’s a reason for the broadness — the book is telling the general, vague, hypothetical story of Japanese women who came to America as brides in the years before World War II, and the point of view says both, yes, we are all doing different things but our cultural story is the same and yes, we all come from the same place but none of our lives are exactly the same. It’s fascinating and it makes you think about how many details of these women’s lives match your own, and but for happenstance this could be your life. The narrative stretches all the way to the departure of the Japanese for the internment camps, and the last chapter of the book abruptly changes point of view from the hypothetical we of the Japanese wives to the hypothetical we of the mostly white people left behind, and you can see the stark difference that those people didn’t think about how similar their lives were to their neighbors, that they took for granted that this wouldn’t, couldn’t happen to them.

So, fascinating. And sobering, if you’re, like me, a person who too often takes things for granted. But as a work of fiction? Sooooooooooooo boring. Those tiny details take up pages and pages of repetitive sentences and paragraphs and most of my breaks to go do something else came after me shouting, OKAY I GET IT, either in my head or out loud to my husband.

As a book club book, it was equally meh — it’s not a book that lends itself to strong opinions so we (we! augh!) were mostly like, yeah, it’s pretty okay. I think everyone else liked it a little better than I did, although I liked the switch-up in the last chapter more. I did find out during book club that the author has written other books with similar themes but different narrative styles, so we’ll see if I’m curious enough to read more.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a book club book, or as a last-minute read in general, but I do recommend it as a book to read when you want to get your thinky thoughts on and maybe one to get your bookish BFF to read and talk about with you.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a very last-minute pick for my library book club, with the conversation going something like this:

A: “What’s the next book?”
B: “I don’t know, you haven’t told me.”
A: “We have a list somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
C: “I read a book about a potato society once and it was really good.”
B: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I have heard good things about it.”
A: “Okay, that’s our next book!”

This is how all the best decisions are made.

Well, actually, this was a pretty good decision. The book is lovely and perfect for book clubbing, following The Nightingale‘s note that World War II books are prime book club fodder.

Like The Nightingale, this book also covers a geographical area I’d never considered before in relation to World War II, the Channel Islands. Part of the Commonwealth but not of the UK proper, and located rather closer to France, these islands were occupied by German forces and their Todt slave laborers but their inhabitants were apparently, comparatively, left alone to weather out the fighting. I learned all sorts of new things reading this book!

I also rather enjoyed the story part of the story, which is told in the epistolary style I adore so much. Our main character, Juliet, finds herself in correspondence with a man on Guernsey who picked up a book she used to own in a used book store and wrote to her to learn more about the author. As… you do? I don’t know, I didn’t live in the late forties. Anyway, Juliet is a writer looking for a new book idea, and her new pen pal turns out to have a fantastic story. He and his neighbors put together a sort of book club on the island to hide some illicit activity, and that club helped a lot of the members through the war. Throughout the book Juliet writes to these people and they write back to share their stories, and we get these great little vignettes of the war from several different viewpoints. Well, “great”. Most of them are terrifically sad, especially the sort of through-line through everyone’s stories about a neighbor lost to a concentration camp. Nazis are awful, I think it is safe to say.

There’s also a love story, but I cared about that very little except that I am satisfied with how it ended. There’s also also some sly social commentary that may or may not be historically accurate but I will happily believe that it is.

I liked the book quite a bit, and my sister-in-law and my book clubbers all seemed to absolutely love it, so I think I can readily recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, sad but happy, history-teaching novel.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleAt the beginning of the year when I was collecting recommendations for my in-person book club, I had several people clamoring for us to read The Nightingale. But even though the book had been out for almost a year, it was still insanely backed up at the library with almost 200 people on hold for it. I kept checking in and checking in and finally there were few enough holds that I felt comfortable making this the book club pick… for August.

Insane, right? I’m guessing that part of the reason it took so long to calm down was the same reason I needed it — it’s a perfect book club book.

The Nightingale tells the story of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters living in France during the German occupation. Vianne watches her husband go off to war, her students dwindle as families leave the city voluntarily and at the hands of the Nazis, her home get taken over by German soldiers, and her daughter grow up in the shadow of the occupation, and she makes it her job to keep her family safe any way she can. Isabelle, the younger sister, wants nothing more than to be someone, and she makes it her goal to join the resistance and work to take down the Nazis in any way that she can.

Reasons to pick this book for your book club:

1. World War II is prime book club fodder, and you know it.
2. A better reason — The Nightingale takes place in occupied France outside of Paris, a place I, for one, haven’t heard too much about in my extensive reading of World War II book club books. It’s fascinating to see how different the attitudes of the soldiers and citizens are compared to novels that take place in England or Germany or the US.
3. It stars two ladies doing the best they can in two wildly different ways. There’s a great discussion to be had about the roles of women at the time and in the present.
4. It’s going to make some people cry, which means plenty of people will show up to your meeting to make sure they weren’t the only ones bawling.

I’m not kidding about number 4. It took me a relatively long time to get into this book, and I saw a lot of the little twists and turns coming (though not all of them, I’ll say) and there were a few parts early on that I could see were meant to make me give a sniffle, and I didn’t cry at them and I was sure this book wasn’t going to make me cry. And then it did, and I was a mess, and my husband was like, seriously, woman, why do you read books that waste our Kleenex, and I was like, shut up and hug me and let me tell you how glad I am that we don’t live in occupied France.

So even though I wasn’t all in from the beginning, this book is definitely on my list of books to recommend to people, and in fact is probably going to be on the list for my library’s book club after I talked it up at a recent meeting. (Thank goodness, that’s one more book I don’t have to read!) If you’re in the market for a moderately depressing but rather fascinating look at life during World War II, this should definitely be on your list.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, by Alan Bradley

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'dIf you’ve been around the blog a while, you’ll know already that I have a love/hate, love to hate, hate to love relationship with Flavia de Luce, which is weird ’cause she’s twelve and also fictional, but what are you gonna do. It’s been an uneven series from the start, and the seventh book was really really terrible, but still as soon as I saw this eighth book up for grabs I was like, well, okay, I’ll read that.

Things that I love about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s precocious and a know-it-all and I might possibly have some experience with that and I like to imagine that my younger self could have gotten up to some serious Adventures if only, well, many things.
2) Bishop’s Lacey. I love this little town and all the people that Flavia bothers on the regular and I like that the characters change along with Flavia’s perceptions of them and become far more interesting as the series goes on.
3) The page count. These books are very short, 300 undersized pages or so, and they read fast, so you can get your fill of murder mystery and then move on with your life.

Things that I hate about Flavia and her books:
1) Flavia. She’s often incredibly wrong and insufferable about it, and also she has aged only a year during these eight books when it reads like she’s aged about five.
2) Buckshaw. I like Flavia’s sisters all right, but they’ve been sort of cast off from the stories of late, and I used to like Flavia’s dad until he got weird, but really the awful person here is Flavia’s mother — who leaves an estate to an actual child and thinks that things will still be all right at home?
3) The body count. Did I mention that there have been more than eight murders in this town (and Canada, I guess) in LESS THAN A YEAR? And no one seems to bat an eye? Is this how Jessica Fletcher got her start?

This book really takes the cake on the murder thing, too, with a dead body that reminded me of the one in The Silkworm, all hung upside down and awful looking. Flavia, of course, finds this body and starts investigating and gets in all sorts of trouble for what, in the end, turns out to be a very strange and anticlimactic solution.

It also wins for the most dysfunctional home life storyline, as Flavia returns home from Canada to find out that her father is sick in hospital and unable to receive visitors, and somehow in the four seconds that she was in Canada her sister has become unengaged and both of her sisters can’t even work up the ability to properly hate her and so of course it’s no wonder she becomes obsessed with a murder case, I guess, but also, seriously, I have no idea how Mrs. Mullet and Dogger have been left in charge of this mess without Child Services stepping in.

The Canada shenanigans, surprisingly, make for the most interesting part of this book when Flavia calls upon Miss Bannerman to help with her murder investigations in London. Very little of the top-secret-hush-hush-whatever stuff is involved, just two chemists hanging out solving a mystery, which is much of what I initially enjoyed about the series.

I kind of wish this book had been more terrible, so that I could give up Flavia for good, but instead it was just about fairly decent and I’m going to have to wait for Bradley to end this series before I can stop reading it. At least they’re very short books.

Recommendation: Oh god don’t even start this series it is a roller coaster of emotions. But if you’re caught up in the series, you’re probably going to read this one no matter what, so go ahead.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.