faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #20: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

I’ve been putting off reviewing The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman for nearly a week trying to wrap my brain around how to express what this novel is, and what my opinions are about it.

The Light Between Oceans came to my attention from Valyruh’s review as well as from Goodreads Best of 2012 voting (it won for best Historical Fiction). I waited rather patiently for it to arrive from my library and only started to get truly anxious to read it once I saw Jen K’s five-star review, since she and I agree on many, many books. In numerous ways I agree with her review of the book. But, when I initially finished the book I only gave it four stars as compared to her five.

The titular light is Janus, the lighthouse located on the southwestern coast of Australia sitting between the Indian and Southern oceans. It is on this small island that the reader learns the tale of Tom Sherbourne and his wife, Isabel. Tom returns from the Great War a broken man, withdrawing from society. He finds refuge working on the lights, having minute but immeasurably important tasks which physically remove him from civilization. It is on his way to Janus to serve as a relief keeper that Tom meets Isabel and their paths become intertwined.  Isabel brings Tom out of his shell and they build a life together on Janus, but after suffering a series of miscarriages, Isabel’s grief and the arrival of a rowboat with a dead man and an infant, Tom makes a decision for the sake of his wife that is morally and ethicaly suspect.

This is Stedman’s debut novel and it is exquisitely delivered. The descriptive language and vacillation between third person and first person storytelling make the story simultaneously intimate and overarching. At its center this is a novel about the moral and ethical boundaries we will bend for love, and what it means to create a family, and how families are both incredibly fragile and strong beyond measure. In her review Valyruh points out that “As many reviewers have commented, this is a sad tale. But it is a riveting one, forcing us to reflect on the morally ambiguous choices good people–like ourselves–make every day without thought of the consequences. Stedman’s writing is compelling, her settings gorgeously described, and her characters have histories and embody all the strengths and weaknesses, beauty and ugliness of everyman.” The novel is inherently sad, and that is perhaps my greatest complaint against it. There is just so much pain, but none of it is blown beyond the proportions of the plot and all of the decisions and actions of the characters fit into who they are. The reader is never left to question why they do what they do, only to fear for what comes next.

The pacing in the novel works especially well, we know from the very beginning the Sherbournes’ big secret, and we spend the rest of the novel tracking how they arrive at that point and how they proceed with their lives. The reader gets swept up like one of Janus’ crashing waves and we see disaster looming on the horizon, waiting for the storm to breach the shore. When it does, the story turns on end. Stedman performs a high wire act of great skill towards the conclusion of the novel, and in the final few chapters gives us a satisfying narrative which was more subtle and certainly more unexpected than I’d dared hoped.

I find for CBR5 the difference between four and five stars to be purely a matter of heart. If I LOVE the book and want to shout that love from the rooftops it gets five stars, if I think it’s fantastic but it doesn’t pull at my heartstrings, or if I don’t find myself aching to push it into the hands of everyone I know then it gets a four star rating. This book had me in LOVE with its characters from the moment go and pulled at every bit of my heart but I’m having a hard time actively inviting anyone else into the heartache this book delivers. Read at your own risk, but know that this is a masterfully crafted novel.

This review is cross-posted.

P.S. In November DreamWorks Studios announced that it has entered into exclusive talks to acquire the feature film rights to The Light Between Oceans.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #19: Looking for Alaska by John Green

After reading The Fault in Our Stars last year and seeing many positive reviews of John Green’s earlier work I decided to start at the beginning of his oeuvre and have a read through. That brought me to Looking for Alaska. It also didn’t hurt that it made the top ten most frequently challenged books list of 2012 for having offensive language, being sexually explicit, as well as being unsuited for age group. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

See what I had to say…

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #18: Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

There was something about the description of Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer that drew me in – cousins in 19th century England encountering boys and magical intrigue? Sure, why not.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #17: Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad

Our Band Could Be Your Life focuses on chronicling the day to day life of the bands and the realities of what they experienced to make their music. Azerrad‘s experience as a journalist shows through in the writing. This is a book made of 13 independent stories which are linked together by commonality of experience.  At times Azerrad is wordy and circles back onto the same themes multiple times and for that reason alone I suggest reading the thirteen chapters as independent works. Don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time with Our Band Could Be Your Life, I found myself reading chapters in between other books (This proved to be a slightly mind-melting experience reading the Mudhoney chapter in between Shine Shine Shine and Beautiful Ruins.)

Full Review Here

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #16: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

First, an admission. I only gave Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters three stars. (proceeds to run from several other cannonballers who gave it higher rankings).

I can understand how this book would rank higher for other readers, and I understand that in many, many ways this is a beautifully crafted novel which opens up one layer at a time. That Jess Walters weaves the narration in such a way that the reader grows with the characters and sees the maturity, the humanity, and the lives which are built out of the beautiful ruin of the choices we make.

That being said, this one didn’t light up my heart.

First, the basics: Beautiful Ruins is the story of Pasquale and Dee, whose lives intersect for a week in Italy in 1962 and again 50 years later. It is also the story of the lives of the people who bring them together and keep them apart. It’s a story which tries to tell us something meaningful, but doesn’t fully land on that idea until the last 30 or so pages of the novel. The book wanted to say something profound about love, hope, doing the right thing, and knowing our place in life – and most emphatically what wanting something more than what is our destiny can do to our psyches. These are big ideas and meaningful places to meditate.

For the rest…

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #15: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

There is much about Flow which aggravates me. Some things are quite simple and would’ve been easily corrected. An editor unafraid to attack with the red pen and hack up chapters and suggest deleting entire ones could easily have saved the reader from repetitive information. But other than being needlessly long and repetitive there was a larger problem. The authors, in attempting to be friendly are instead insulting to even marginally informed women. Flow is a book written in a ‘aw shucks ain’t that interesting’ way that aggravated my last nerve.

For more of my complaining about this book…

 

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #14: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

When I read pyrajane’s review last December I knew I had to read this book. I was not disappointed.

The details in Shine Shine Shine are the making of this novel. Lydia Netzer makes several conscious choices as an author which allow for a type of story we’ve heard a hundred times seem fresh and new by changing the angles through which we view it. At the epicenter of the story are Sunny and Maxon. When Maxon met Sunny, he was seven years, four months, and eighteen-days old. Or, he was 2693 rotations of the earth old. Maxon was different. Sunny was different. And they were different together. This pair is the great love in the novel, and they are also the center of its dysfunction.

By eliminating possessive pronouns throughout much of the narrative Netzer keeps the reader on their toes.  I was immediately intrigued and put completely off-balance throughout the first half of the novel. There is a bit of many genres flitting in and out. It’s the story of a family, it’s the story of a child with autism, it’s the story of damaged adults, it’s the story of birth and death, and it’s a story about robots colonizing the moon.

I’m intentionally leaving out lots of detail about the story, not because it’s unimportant, but because I want you to discover the details for yourself. Be warned that it may be a very slow start, but it picks up.  Be prepared to dislike at least one character at any given time, but also know that your opinion may change as you move farther into the plot. This is the story of the things we do to protect what we love, even when we don’t understand the choices.

“Sometimes it comes to that desperate state, when you have to cling to each other and be alone. When no one else can truly matter. She thought, Ours is one of the epic loves of our generation. Possibly of all time. Who cares if no one sees it, walking by? This story is a love song. Who cares if history won’t remember?” (195).

I give this one a 3.5, it would have been a four if it had picked up sooner.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #13: The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived by Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, and Jeremy Salter

This book holds in it the kernel of a really neat idea – what 101 fictional characters/myths/legends influence our lives and has affected history? Read more here to see how I felt the authors did with this set up.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #12: Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey

From Goodreads: “When Keri Daniels’ editor finds out she has previous carnal knowledge of reclusive bestselling author Joe Kowalski, she gives Keri a choice: get an interview or get a new job. Joe’s never forgotten the first girl to break his heart, so he’s intrigued to hear Keri’s back in town–and looking for him. Despite his intense need for privacy, he’ll grant Keri an interview if it means a chance to finish what they started in high school. He proposes an outrageous plan–for every day she survives with his family on their annual camping and four-wheeling trip, Keri can ask one question. Keri agrees; she’s worked too hard to walk away from her career. But the chemistry between them is still as potent as the bug spray…”

I had to stop it there. I’m not saying it was a bad book, it was a perfectly serviceable rom-com but the story did little for me personally. I decided to pick up this series based on Malin’s review of the second book in the series, Undeniably Yours. It sounded like the kind of story I needed after working my way through Nazi-looted artwork. Light and fluffy here I come!

And it was. But, not light enough for me. My brain wouldn’t turn off to simply enjoy the plot and there was some similarly named characters and some age math which just refused to jive for me. But, all that aside, the story of Joe and Keri and their rediscovery of the love they shared as teenagers now that they are in their mid-thirties certainly kept me interested, and it was nice to see a male protagonist as sexually activated by his female counterpart as she was by him. Something that not enough contemporary romance writers achieve.

This review and all my others can be found here.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #11: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel

*I’m not sure if a spoiler warning is appropriate, but proceed with caution, I discuss the book in detail*

I found myself drawn to Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men quite naturally. I work in museums and studied to do so. As part of that study, Nazi-looted art and reparations took up quite a lot of time. As part of one of my classes (well, two to be honest) we watched the documentary The Rape of Europa which documents the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)section to preserve the cultural patrimony of Europe. I sincerely recommend it. Viewing that movie led me to seek out more information about the MFAA and found myself with The Monuments Men on my to-read list. I am so glad that I got around to reading it now.

“An informed army, in other words, is a respectful and disciplined army.” (15-16).

The Monuments Men were an incredibly limited force caught up in the largesse of the Allied forces in Europe. Given the scope of the goals of the MFAA, to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat, Edsel chose to focus on the members who formed the initial group which crossed as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This group of eight, along with two members of the museum corps in France, forms the main characters of Edsel’s story. Without funding, transport, or a central commander these initial officers – all of whom came from creative fields of work – were assigned to various divisions spread across Western Europe with the invading Allies. One of their first missions was to prevent as much damage and looting as possible. So, on the fly, the MFAA wrote and published pamphlets for enlisted men detailing the monuments they were likely to come across in any area in order to encourage them to preserve them as best as possible. They were also, initially, running around the French countryside placing ‘OFF LIMITS’ signs on the monuments and culturally important buildings they came across. Within weeks they were running low on signs.

Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.’ – Eisenhower (63).

World War II was unique in American military history in regards to art preservation. It was the only time that there was a concerted effort to protect the cultural artifacts in combat zones. With the strides being made in the arts community, conservers and other museum folk were prepared to help in unprecedented ways, and worked to be included in the military mission.  Beyond this, there was the decision early on to restore cultural property to their original country. This plan would never have succeeded had there not been leadership from the generals at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. It was not flawless; there were areas which suffered devastating losses in many city centers and the near total destruction of Dresden as one example.  Edsel uses some of the most descriptive language I’ve read in a long time as he depicts what was lost and what remained.

“On the outskirts of Bonn, the sun was shining. The buildings were untouched. But like so many other cities, the farther toward the center he [Hancock] drove, the more damage he saw. The town center was mostly destroyed, the result of Western Allied bombing runs, but even here he saw cherry trees in bloom, twisting up among the ruins.” (255).

Much of Edsel’s narrative is spent with the individual Monuments Men. It is through these men, and in their own words often interspersed throughout the book in their letters home, that we are able to see what occurred on the front lines of the Western Front during 1944 and 1945. The suffering they experience, and the amount of work and hours they placed into preserving what they found and protecting what remained. This is the backbone of The Monuments Men, the ordinary service of dedicated men, and what that tells us about a forgotten chapter of one of the best known stories in our collective history.

“Sometimes Stout felt he was fighting another war entirely, a war within a war, a backward-circling eddy in a downward-rushing stream. What if we win the war, he thought, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?” (237).

Edsel does not shy away from telling the stories of the pieces, collections, archives, monuments, churches, and other buildings which were lost. Through the chronicling of what was lost, we are better able to understand the magnificence of what the MFAA, and the many people who worked with them, managed to save.

“The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library’s renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service.” (157).

As the members of the MFAA worked their way across northern Europe, they came across many dedicated art officials who worked tirelessly through the six years of the war in Europe to preserve whatever they could. Edsel works to intersperse all angles of those who worked for the preservation of cultural objects into the story, making the narrative larger than the eight MFAA men featured, or the 350 officers who served throughout the life of the MFAA. Whether it involved hiding artworks, furnishings, and books in mines, in basements, or in keeping records of where Nazi officers had shipped treasures into Germany, or preventing the bombing of strongholds, there were countless people who took part in the preservation work.  It’s for all these reasons and a unique look at a lesser known aspect of World War II history that I heartily recommend this one.  Happy reading!

 “The story of Altaussee, so monumental in the world of art and culture, was quickly subsumed by larger stories – Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, and disintegrating relations with the Soviet Union that would define the new world order as the cold war.” (378).

P.S. This book is going to be a George Clooney directed movie starring Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and a bunch of other faves, in December.

 “I made the visit [to Ohrdruf work camp] deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’” – Eisenhower (308).

This review is cross-posted.