Book 58: All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (2014)


All the Light We Cannot SeeLocation: Zizzi

Chosen by: This choice came about due to some confusion with “The Light Between Oceans”, a previous book club review.

This critically-acclaimed novel won the Pulitzer Prize, was a National Book Award finalist, and a 2-year New York Times bestseller, among many other accolades. Set against a backdrop of World War II, we experience two very different storylines.

Marie-Laure is a young, blind French girl, who is forced to the walled citadel Saint-Malo with her father to live in her reclusive uncle’s house when the Nazis occupy their home town of Paris. Marie’s father works at the Museum of Natural History, and he must protect the museum’s most valuable jewel—a jewel the Nazis want due to a fairy tale about it.

In contrast, Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives in a German mining town with his sister. They find inspiration in an old radio, listening to news from around the world. When Werner learns how to fix and build radios, he is enlisted in the Nazi Youth due to his skills. As the war escalates, we see normal people trying to live their lives in this difficult environment. As the novel progresses, Marie-Laure and Werner’s stories merge, though not in the way you think they will.

Doerr took ten years to write this book, and his efforts certainly paid off in the believability of his characters, the strength of their relationships, and the vivid, detailed descriptions of each setting. To say it’s “well-written” somehow isn’t strong enough. His baddies summon real hate, his goodies follow paths that are truly moving. The relationships between Marie-Laure and her father and uncle are wonderful. His descriptions are so evocative that they transport you to France and Germany (in fact so convincingly that I forgot I was in a Japanese train station as I read it).

Despite being difficult to get into at the start, the novel grabs you—with short chapters that make it a gripping page-turner, pardon the cliché. There are harrowing times, tense moments, and flashes of hope. Although All the Light We Cannot See isn’t uplifting, and at times feels a little bleak, it’s one of those books that should be read. Could it have ended a little sooner? Perhaps. Would it have been nice for a little more happiness? Maybe. But this is the reality of war. The acts of defiance from normal people were reminiscent of Alone in Berlin (a previous book club favourite). And there are magical moments—moments of light—even when it seems like there are none.

Score: 8

If you’ve read All the Light We Cannot See, feel free to score it out of 5 using the star rating above.


Book 50: The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015)

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Image result for The Girl on the TrainLocation: Sack of Potatoes, double-header. A momentous book club occasion – book 50!

Tipped as “the psychological thriller of 2015”, The Girl on the Train debuted at numero uno on the New York Times Best Sellers list, where it stayed for 13 weeks. It topped the UK hardback chart for longer than any other book, and by Oct 2016, it had sold over 15 million copies worldwide.

If you’ve haven’t already read it yet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?), it’s a first-person story narrated by three women: Rachel, Anna, and Megan in alternating chapters. Rachel is an alcoholic who gets the train every day and observes the lives of Megan and Anna. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband. Megan lives a few houses away from Anna. Then Megan goes missing. Rachael becomes embroiled in the mystery of Megan’s disappearance. The big mystery.

So what’s the big deal, you might wonder? Is it all that? It can be hard to decipher whether these huge bestsellers live up to their hype, so here’s the low down.

The novel is very cleverly written in terms of plot, particularly how the web of mystery is built up and then gradually unravels— slowly spoon-feeding the reader clues to piece it all together. Despite this, it’s enjoyably fast-paced with short chapters, meaning it’s an easy one-day read … on the train even. It’s “a real page turner” to be completely clichéd, and the twists are exciting. In these terms, it lives up to the hype. It’s not the best written book, if we’re being honest. Good writing is sacrificed for plot at times, but the plot is strong enough to excuse its shortcomings in writing style.

There has also been much comparison to 2012’s big psychological thriller Gone Girl due to the unreliable narration, thrilling aspects, different perspectives, and presentation of suburban life. But Hawkins renounced these claims, stating that Gone Girl’s female protagonist Amy is “a psychopath…controlling and manipulative” while Rachel is “a mess who can’t do anything right”.

Despite this, we found more comparisons than Hawkins did in that like Amy, the female characters in The Girl on the Train aren’t particularly likeable. Rachel’s behaviour is often annoying, Megan is irritating, and Anna is a bit bland. What’s worse, the female characters are … sort of a sad indictment of womanhood. Likewise, as with Gone Girl, the male characters are abhorrent, and yet the female characters need them somehow. If you analyse it too deeply, the message is a bit unsettling. Until the ending of course, but we won’t ruin it for you. In short, definitely worth a read.

On a side note, we debated a second Unconventional Book Club outing to see the incredibly-quickly-produced film adaption of The Girl on the Train. But after a less-than-successful first outing to see much-loved book The Time Traveller’s Wife butchered in the film adaptation, we decided not to risk it. The question must be asked—why would a quintessentially British novel describing the train-track-overlooking-terraced-house-gardens scenario we know so well be depicted as American detached houses? There’s no logic in that, but it was enough to make most of us avoid the film.

Score: A solid 8.

Book 46: The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein (2008)

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The Art of Racing in the Rain

Location: The Warehouse Café, veggie café – very enjoyable

Category: Male authors

Chosen by: Rachael

Back in the first phase of the book club, Rachael nominated The Art of Racing in the Rain as one of her 5 choices. Back then, it didn’t get pulled out of the hat. Four years later, she nominated it again—gotta love a trier! A novel narrated by a dog isn’t our normal cup of tea, but hey, it graced the New York Times bestseller list for over 156 weeks, so someone certainly liked it!

Enzo the Labrador-part-terrier has human-like consciousness. In fact, he’s convinced that his life as a dog is preparing himself for his next life as a human. Enzo’s getting on a bit, so he’s become fairly philosophical about his demise and narrates his life story through memories. Meanwhile, his owner Denny is in the midst of a life crisis, which Enzo intersperses with his memoirs.

As you might have guessed from the title, the novel heavily focuses on motor racing. Denny is a racing car driver, and Enzo—the avid TV watcher—loves racing. A true man-dog-best-friend combo, they watch races together and Denny explains the art of racing in the rain to his companion. Because Enzo isn’t a dog, he’s a friend. If you look deep enough into the racing sections, there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere…

So as you can probably guess, this novel is pretty unique. It goes without saying that if you don’t like dogs or racing, you probably won’t get much from this book. If you like both, you’re on to a winner. If you like dogs, you can skip the racing parts—if you like racing, you can skip the doggy parts. As much of the Unconventional Book Club didn’t like motor racing (those sections were described as “long and tedious”), most of them skimmed the racing aspects, but enjoyed Enzo’s absolutely convincing voice—a dog who perceives our organised systems of human life so acutely. If you’re expecting banal details of a dog’s daily life, think more along the lines of acute insights of human life from a dog’s perspective.

Overall, the novel elicited a wide variety of responses, from “over-sentimentalised” and “it came, it went; I shan’t remember it” to “it had a great effect on me” and “was surprisingly brilliant”. A few members had a little cry; it manages to be both heart-breaking and life-affirming if it takes you. The novel itself is a mixture of amusing anecdotes, laugh out loud parts, an innocent perspective, and the handling of serious, mature themes.

Despite the range of views that The Art of Racing in the Rain stimulated, we all agreed on one point…it does make you wonder. When you look at your pet, or a passing dog, or any animal—what are they thinking? Are they imagining doing laps in a racing car? Observing the society we’ve carefully built around ourselves? Or dreaming of becoming a human in their next life?

Score: 7