All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

For Marie- Laure, it all starts with the Sea of Flames and the legend behind it- of one rare blue teardrop diamond with a flare of red in the center, with the power of immortality to the owner at the price of a curse: ill fate to those dearest. It was a centuries old story that Marie-Laure wasn’t quite convinced was true, but she pondered the legend anyways, imagining what the diamond would look like- for not only was she blind, but the jewel was said to be held deep in a vault with thirteen doors. After all, her father, security and keeper of the keys at the MusĆ©um National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France, worked in close proximity to the vault.

For Werner, it all starts with a copy of a popular mechanics magazine and a simple radio, listening to a broadcast from who knows where of a man teaching science. An orphan living with his sister, Jutta, at Children’s House (an orphanage), Werner was eager to understand the world around him, studying conduits and gears, magnets and electricity, and eventually becoming extremely talented at fashioning simple machines and fixing even the most complex radios. When a German officer has him repair his radio, Werner is inspired by his praise and decides to attend the National Political Institute of Education at Schulpforta, in an effort to make something of himself- to go far, do well.

What these two young children aren’t expecting is the start of World War II, and how quickly it would change their lives.

For Marie-Laure, she would flee with her father to Saint-Malo, having to learn the area through her father and his handcrafted wooden replica of the town by feel and sound. Her great-uncle Etienne, who fought in World War I and still battled his demons post-war, and his housekeeper, Madame Manec, took them in, eventually becoming Marie-Laure’s guardians when her father is caught and sent to a labor camp in Germany. Determined to aid the allied war effort, Madame, Marie-Laure, and even Etienne risk their lives running operations in code through the sound waves of Etienne’s radio.

For Werner, he would become one of Hitler’s Youth, learning the cold methodology of the Nazi SS organization. Though he witnessed the cruelty of the system, there didn’t seem to be a way to stand up against it- nor was he sure that he could. Attempting to keep his nose to the grindstone, he surprises one of his teachers with his quick ability to produce simple mechanics and electronics, and becomes a favorite of his instructor. Then, when Werner tries to level the favoritism playing field between himself and his peers, the instructor turns against him and enlists him. As a soldier in Hitler’s Army, he scans the radio waves for illicit transmitters, ones that could be aiding the allied war effort.

As the two plot lines connect, the pages seem to turn faster and faster as the reader learns what is to become of the now young adults. It’s a beautiful story, and the sensual visualizations (sight, sound, even tactile) that Doerr gives the reader through his two main characters is so realistic that it’s like you are there, witnessing everything for yourself. I also enjoyed reading about World War II from yet another point of view, in which the characters are affected by the war differently than some other novels I’ve read- though it still reads heavy because no matter who is talking about the subject matter, the subject is still about the one of the darkest times in our history. I should also mention that the chapters alternate by character and are very short, so though it is a 500+ page novel, it still reads rather quick.

Overall, I’d recommend All The Light We Cannot See, but I wasn’t as enamored with it as I thought I would be. It’s a good story, and if I found the book on one of my Goodwill hauls, I’d certainly pick it up, but I’m not rushing to the store for my own personal copy. I’m glad that I did read it though, and would say that those who recommended it to me were spot on in saying that I would enjoy it!

 

 

 

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

IĀ  also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel,Ā Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

I’ll keep this one short because I’m afraid if I say too much, all the plot twists will be revealed! Tatiana and Alexander is the sequel to The Bronze Horseman, one I didn’t realize existed until I started doing a little research after my last book review. I found it online and ordered it, and I think it took longer to ship the book than it took me to read it. It’s over 500 pages, and I couldn’t put it down for about three days.

Now, if you haven’t read the first book, stop right here. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Still with me? Okay. The sequel follows Tatiana as she figured out how to live without Alexander in America. She and her little boy, Anthony, take up residence on Ellis Island, and Tatiana becomes a nurse, aiding the sick who enter as refugees and captives of the war. All the while, she holds on to the nagging feeling that Alexander hasn’t left her, that he must be alive…. and though she doesn’t quite know it, he is. He’s narrowly escaped death not once, but a handful of times, and he won’t stop holding on to the hope that he will see Tatiana and their baby again.

It’s an epic love story novel, and if you loved The Bronze Horseman, you’ll love reading their final chapters in Tatiana and Alexander.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

I can’t remember how long this book has sat on my bookshelves, in various homes, and not once been opened. When I was sorting through my stacks not that long ago, I put it in a “to read” pile and have only just gotten to it. I don’t know what took me so long, but let me tell you it will stay on my bookshelves.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is a heart wrenching love story. It follows the lives of Tatiana and Alexander, who are drawn together on the day that the Soviet Union enters World War II. Young Tatiana, age seventeen, can’t help but fall for the man whom her sister, Dasha, has already laid claim to- Alexander, a Red Army soldier. But they can’t help wanting to be together, so Alexander takes on a protective roll for Tatiana and Dasha’s family as they prepare and brace themselves for the war in Leningrad. As Tatiana and Alexander get closer, secrets are reveal, lies are formed, and their romantic interest in each other is put aside, despite their desire.

As the war goes on and the Germans get closer, Tatiana’s innocent optimism is replaced by the need to remain hopeful of survival. She supports her family, but her family treats her more as a servant than a daughter. When her own mother, in hushed tones, said that she wanted her son, Pasha, home safe instead of Tatiana, Tatiana runs off to the war front to try and find her missing brother and bring him home. When Alexander finds out, he gathers a troop of soldiers and leads them to the front to bring Tatiana back. After searching for her, he finds her buried under a pile of bodies, barely conscious but alive. After digging her out, he does what he can to help her, but she has a broken leg and is weak. The railroad systems back to Leningrad at the war front were bombed, so he carried her for kilometers on his back, overnight, to the nearest station and held her up until she was delivered safely to a hospital bed in Leningrad. Through all this, their bond strengthened deeper.

Even as Tatiana healed, she still doted on her family’s needs. Through the winter of 1941-1942 during the Siege of Leningrad, she bared starvation, cold, bombing, and thieves to gather the small rations available for her family. Alexander helped when he could, supplying the family with extra food that he could get with his soldier rations. Things got bleaker and bleaker, with millions dying around them from starvation, cold, and disease. Though terribly weak herself, when Dasha couldn’t physically stand Tatiana went out and sought help from Alexander. He managed to get them evacuated across the Road of Life on Lake Ladoga despite the dangers, but his love-triangle relationship with Dasha and Tatiana did more personal damage. He sent them off with Tatiana’s heart breaking, and Alexander didn’t know if he’d ever see them alive again.

When Tatiana and Alexander meet again, it is six months later. Dasha dies, but the ghost of her remains everywhere in the small refuge village with Tatiana. Tatiana and Alexander have to sort out their messy relationship, and though it wasn’t easy, they finally mend each other’s broken hearts. When Alexander returns to battle, Tatiana knows she can’t survive without him, and follows him back to Leningrad because she knows he needs her to survive as well.

As a hopeless closet romantic, this novel (all 900 plus pages) had me hooked. I had to know what would happen to Tatiana and Alexander. Would they survive the war? Would they be together? What happens if one of them dies? And there is plenty I’ve left out in this summary- sparing you all the great plot twists and turns. If you haven’t read this and you love historical fiction, love stories, Russian culture, or anything about WWII, then you must read Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I remember the first time I read this. I was in 4th or 5th grade at the time, and though I was a pretty mature-minded tween, the diary of Anne Frank was just another book that I couldn’t put down. I didn’t correlate the fact that the words in my hands, though edited, were the words of an actual human being. A human being who happened to be going through the worst imaginable circumstance. To my tween self, I was relating to the average diary-writing, family squabbling, worrying teen on the pages. More than 10 years later, I happened to be watching a BBC broadcast about the Annex that Anne Frank made so famous, and there was an interviewer asking people why they decided to take the tour. Most said it was for the history, but others has family stories similar to Anne’s, and came to, in a way, pay their respects to Anne for telling her story. This motivated me to seek out Anne Frank’s diary again.

While I’m sure there isn’t a single reader out there who hasn’t heard of Anne Frank and her life in hiding from Nazi Germany during World War II, I’ll refresh your memory on the details.

Anne, the youngest of the Frank family, went into hiding with her father (Otto), mother (Edith) and sister (Margot) on July 5th, 1942. Along with the Frank family, there were four others in hiding with them: The van Pels family (or as Anne calls them, the van Daan family) AugusteĀ  (aka Mrs. van Daan), Hermann (Mr. van Daan), and Peter (van Daan); and Fritz Pfeffer (aka Albert Dussel). The hidden Annex was the top two floors of the office building where Otto Frank worked. They stayed in hiding for over two years, aided by Mr Johannes Kleiman, Mr. Victor Kugler, Miep Gies, and Bep Voskuijl. Two years. Two year inside, never being allowed outside, always having to be quiet, living in fear of being found out and sent to their deaths. Two years of living off what you have and what others could supply you, being entirely dependent on the good will and bravery of those keeping you safe.

What impresses me more now is how much you see a change of maturity in Anne during her time in the Annex. In the beginning, she is so much a child, optimistic and unsure of what is happening around her, but thinking of it as an adventure (even though she understood the urgency of the situation). Her constant mentions of the household bickering and drama are silly in comparison to the reality of 1942. Towards the middle of her diary, you start to note the change, and to which I believe her focus in her diary changed from a personal confidant to more of a detailed account of her reality for an eventual audience. She explains what is happening, how they live in hiding, what keeps the family optimistic, what frightens her the most.Towards the end, (and such a sad, haunting end to think about), the reader and Anne have truly identified the complex human that she, and her grasp on the world in which she was shut away from is impressively informed and ruminated on.

Reading this as an adult versus a teen has changed my perspective on Anne, but not for the worse. It most certainly deepens my respect for her and her Annex family, with additional deep sympathy for Otto Frank, as the man who outlived his young family, lived through the horrors of concentration camps, and then returned to find his youngest child’s last accounts of her life. To be so brave and optimistic at a time when the world was at it’s darkest…

If you haven’t read it, you must, because it’s the least you can do in her memory.