Best reads

I know this is late but it has been sitting on my computer for some time. Here it is.

All the light we cannot see Anthony Doerr (2014)

This novel is set in France during World War II. Its two main characters are children.

Marie-Laure is the daughter of the locksmith from the local museum. She is blind. Her father builds her a model of the city so that she can become familiar with her neighbourhood through her sense of touch. This encourages her to explore the world outside.

As the Nazis approach, her father is entrusted with a museum piece, a precious stone. The German pursuit of this piece and the path that leads them to Marie-Laure provides the novel with its heart-stopping pace.

Werner Pfennig is an 8-year-old orphan. He is highly intelligent, with an advanced technical mind. His abilities attract the attention of the Nazis and he is enrolled in one of their training schools. While at the school he develops a machine that traces radio signals. When he graduates he is deployed to trace and destroy illegal radio transmissions.

The reader senses that Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s paths will converge but whether this occurs and how keeps the story moving and the reader entrapped.

A very enjoyable read. Doerr captures the war time era and the mood of a country under occupation. I walked away with many vivid images of hardship and triumph.

Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

You may recall Harari as the author of Sapiens. I have read both books but I believe his latter work Homo Deus is the better work. The title literally translated means “Man God”.

In Sapiens, Harari traced the evolution of humans and their cultural, biological, economic and philosophical history. In his sequel, he looks to the future.

Through a well argued thesis, Harari postulates that humans will evolve beyond themselves so that future generations will not recognise the people from today. He explores advances in science and technology and the rise of dataism and algorithms.

Harari is a passionate and outspoken animal rights activist. There is a sense of vindication underpinning his view of the future as he sees humans doing to themselves what animals have had to endure for centuries.

The goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

This Pulitzer prize winning work written in the first person follows a young Theo Decker, who following a terrorist attack on a museum comes into possession of the Fabritius’ work The Goldfinch.

The novel follows Theo’s life as he clings to the artwork despite his fear of being caught.

But as the story develops the search for the painting winds its way to Theo.

The novel contains many interesting insights into the world of museums and artwork. Tartt controls the tension well and creates a real page turner.

Les Miserables. Vctor Hugo (1862)

I have always enjoyed the musical, but did I know the real story? So, in 2017 I decided to read the original novel by the master writer. My version was 900+ pages long!

The novel is divided into a total of 48 books and 365 chapters.

The reader could overlook large sections of the story and not lose track of the plot. Hugo takes us on side roads to explore the life and times of Bishop of Digne (who you may recall harbours Valjean and permits him to steal his silverware), a contemplative order of nuns, the Battle of Waterloo and the intricacies of the Parisian sewer system. Over a quarter of the novel is taken up by these digressions. In these instances, Hugo was clearly being self-indulgent, but his imagery and prose are hard to resist.

The story is full of wonderful characters with their strengths and vulnerabilities. Jean Valjean is one of my favourite literary characters and I enjoyed delving into his background and Hugo was not short on detail and descriptions.

While I enjoyed the experience I only recommend it to the persistent and determined.

The good people by Hannah Kent (2016)

I really enjoyed Kent’s Burial Rites and was looking forward to her next work. Although it has not received the same critical acclaim as her debut work, Kent’s The good people is a very good piece of literature.

Kent takes us to 19th Century Ireland. It is the story of Nora Leahy, who after the death of her daughter becomes responsible for her grandson Micheal. But Micheal is severely disabled, he cannot walk or talk and does not thrive under her care.

On Micheal’s arrival to the village strange events occur including the death of a Nora’s husband. Rumours abound that Micheal is a changeling. The real Micheal has been taken by the fairies (the good people) and what they have left behind is a shell of boy.

Finding no answers with the medical profession or the Church, Nora turns the village healer Nora Roche who convinces Nora that she can convince the good people to return the real Micheal.

Steeped in superstition and tragedy and including a well-structured legal drama, the novel is beautifully written and well worth a look.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017)

I approached this work with trepidation given it was described as a great example in experimental writing. I have not had great experiences with such works; if a novel does not capture my interest quickly on some level, I am not likely to finish it. But I am a sucker for award winners and Saunders’ work won the 2017 Booker Prize.

My efforts were well rewarded. The novel traces the grief of President Lincoln and his wife Mary, following the death of their son Willie. The Bardo is a Tibetan/Buddhist term meaning the “intermediate or middle place” not unlike a Christian’s purgatory. And poor Willie occupies this place as the forces wrestle with his father’s grief and his inability to release his son into the next world.

Most of the novel unfolds over a single night. However, the Bardo gives Saunders a platform to unleash his imagination as he paints a wondrous and supernatural place filled with wild and weird characters. One image that remains with me is of a man who when alive owned many properties that preoccupied most of his time. In the Bardo this man is suspended horizontally and every time he thinks of one of his properties his body, like a compass needle, spins in the direction of that real estate.

Saunders develops many themes in this work notably Lincoln’s management of the Civil War while he himself was in a deep state of grief.

Happy reading in 2018!

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