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.

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fireomg, Rose Under Fire. omg, omg.

So I read this amazing book last year called Code Name Verity that could probably have literally knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks while reading it. It was fascinating and horrifying and tricksy and I loved it to pieces and right after I read it this quasi-sequel came out and I was like, oh, I’m totally going to read that. And finally, I did.

Part 1 of the book is pretty decent, with more awesome lady pilots being awesome and piloting, and our diary-writing hero this time is an American ferry pilot in the RAF called Rose Justice, which, fine, whatever, it lends itself to some good wordplay, I guess. Anyway, the war is reaching its peak in 1944 and there’s lots of flying to do, and Rose gets some good flights due to nepotism and finds herself in Paris, which she thinks is pretty sweet. She writes some seemingly innocuous words while there — “I hope I don’t forget [this journal] tomorrow morning” — and then my lunch break ends and I go back to work, looking forward to more flying adventures.

And then I get back to the book later and Rose has gone MIA! Nooooo! There are letters between her friend and her family and clearly things have gone horribly wrong! And then the diary picks up again, six months later, and Rose is writing about her ghastly stay in Ravensbrück.

And, okay, truth time, I almost stopped reading this book right there, because I’ve read a lot of World War II/Holocaust literature and I know from concentration camps, right? I loved Verity in part because there were no horrible death camps and I got to learn something new. So I was like, really, Elizabeth Wein, you can’t do better than that?

But of course she proved me wrong, again, perpetually. I certainly learned something new here, something that I fervently wish weren’t true: that there was a whole transport of Polish women who had bones removed and infections purposefully injected into them so that the Nazi doctors could simulate war injuries and figure out how to fix them. Spoiler: there wasn’t much fixing going on.

These so-called Rabbits and their plight are a big part of the story, but of course the real story is about Rose and her friendships with the other women in the camp, whether they were Rabbits or Russians or even Germans. Wein does a great job of making everyone fairly sympathetic; everyone just wants to survive, and the lengths they go to to do so are more of those new things I learned that I wish I couldn’t have.

In addition to writing her diary, it turns out that Rose is a pretty decent poet, so there are little poems sprinkled throughout the diary text. I’m not much for poetry, so I wasn’t thrilled about them at the beginning, but the ones written as part of the concentration camp section of the book are surprisingly gut-wrenching. One in particular, called “Lisette Waits”, had me tearing up even before things got really bad for everyone.

It’s a depressing book, for sure, but nearly as amazingly so as Code Name Verity. If you have plans to read Verity, definitely do that before reading Rose or you will be super spoiled. If you don’t have plans to read Verity, I do not know what is wrong with you.

Recommendation: Read Code Name Verity. Read this when you need another dose of Elizabeth Wein goodness.

Rating: 9/10

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (1 March — 5 March)

-sniffle- I really wasn’t sure about this book. I’d heard good things, but when I picked it up and started reading I was a bit put off by Death’s narrative style. Yes, Death is the narrator. Of a Holocaust book. Oh, joy. And Death spouts off about colors for a chapter, and it’s symbolic, sort of, but it didn’t make a lot of sense while reading it. Death also cuts in all the time with weird, bolded pronouncements like

* * * HERE IS A SMALL FACT * * *
You are going to die

That’s on the first page. I was a bit concerned. But then, as I read some more, I got used to the intrusions and even started to appreciate them. That fact seems almost appropriate to this book.

Anyway, I said the book was about the Holocaust, but it’s not, really. It’s about a young German girl who is sent to live with a foster family during Hitler’s reign, and how she grows up amid the tumult. She makes friends, she gets into fights, she steals some books (obviously), she helps hide a Jew, and she generally becomes a fine young woman. Of course, bad things happen all over the place. To paraphrase Death, an admission: I cried for the last 50 pages. It’s not a happy book, and it took a bit to really pull me in, but it is a very very good book and you should read it.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Australia)