I’m doing another creative fiction writing course, so not as much time to read. I encountered some great and not so great novels in the last couple of months.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015 and it’s a wonderful read. I read somewhere that it took him 10 years to finish. The story centres around Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in France during World War II, and a German orphan who serves as a Nazi radio specialist. In fact, radio is a constant theme: how the German Reich used radio for propaganda, and how the French Resistance used it to combat the Germans.

Every word of this piece of literary fiction is meticulously chosen for maximum impact. There are some beautiful passages viz: “They start up the length of the rue Cuvier. A trio of airborne ducks threads toward them, flapping their wings in synchrony, making for the Seine, and as the birds rush overhead, she imagines she can feel the light settling over their wings, striking each individual feather.”

Thankfully, there is no love affair that transpires between the two main characters – that would have been too predictable and disappointing. I liked the originality of the story. Yes, it’s about WWII and the Holocaust, but told through the eyes of two youngsters.

If I had to throw around some criticism, it would be that the character of the German officer (Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel) is a bit of a stereotype. A dastardly, evil Nazi who is riddled with cancer and hell bent on finding the Sea of Flame – a gem with supernatural powers to protect whoever possesses it from death. Maire-Laure has the diamond and the Nazi chases her around the small French village of Saint Malo.

At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracey Chevalier. I usually love her books but this one, not so much. It was a slow start and I never really felt invested in the characters, because I found them flat. Set in the 1830s, it’s a bleak story about sequoia trees, the American frontier, and a very dysfunctional family (the Goodenoughs). I really disliked the violent relationship between James and Sadie Goodenough. I wasn’t looking for a romantic love story, but I just didn’t find their relationship believable.

Along the way, we meet some real life characters – William Lobb and Johnny Appleseed. I will say it’s well-researched and well-written. Just not an enjoyable novel for me. I far prefer her earlier writing.

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. I didn’t finish this debut novel. Cadwallader is an Australian author and the story is set in England in 1255. Seventeen year old, Sarah, voluntarily enters a small cell in a church and devotes her life to God. Immersed in a prayerful life for her village and the wealthy landowner who is her patron, it’s essentially 300 pages of someone sitting in a claustrophobic cell, whilst denying her senses and physicality.

I do think the world-building was handled very well. You could imagine the Medieval setting and Cadwallader writes well. A number of themes are developed, which I’d describe as being about madness, isolation, intimacy, and patriarchal society and power. However, I thought it was a slow start and I was annoyed by too many adverbs (it’s a pet hate of mine).

Number 11 by Jonathon Coe. I have not read any of Coe’s books before, and I won’t be – based on this book. I just didn’t like this novel at all. I found it confusing, with a slow start and annoying adverbs. For example: “Nicholas said, unnecessarily...”;  “Mum, where are you going?” he asked, plangently” (plangently??? who the hell uses this word?). By page 62, I was ready to throw in the towel – I wasn’t invested in the main character, a young girl called Rachel (why are so many female main characters called Rachel these days?).

The novel is really Coe’s vehicle to deliver a (sometimes witty) diatribe on contemporary Britain – austerity measures; reality TV; tax evasion and internet trolls; erosion of privacy; and how money has become a driving force. There are five interconnected stories that seem to meander and I wonder if you need to have read his 1994 book, What A Carve Up!, to understand some of the context and cultural references. I thought there were some tedious, preachy passages along the way. Sometimes I thought he’d cobbled together some short stories around a state-of-the-nation address.

You and Me, Always by Jill Mansell. Another author I haven’t read before. Guess I’d describe this as Chick Lit and I’m not into this genre. It’s the story of Lily who, on her twenty-fifth birthday, reads a letter from her mother, who died when she was eight. From here, we have a story of regret and loss, of hope and love, although it’s a bit of a romantic comedy too.

It’s a light read but the problem was I read it straight after finishing All The Light We Cannot See. Unfair to compare I know. What really annoyed me about this book was the thirty-something single woman, who has been unlucky in love and desperately wants a child. Any man she meets, it’s as though she’s ready to get her clutches into him, plan the wedding and have kids straight away.

Doubt I’d read anything more by Mansell, but I can see she would appeal to those who like romantic, light-hearted reads.

The Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas. This debut novel was a surprise, and the back story is just as interesting as the book itself. Thomas (a Kiwi) was a radio copywriter and also a scriptwriter for documentaries and sports programmes. It was whilst researching for a documentary that she came across stories of Nazis looting the valuable treasures of Jewish people during WWII.

She wrote The Keeper of Secrets over seven years, and then self-published it in 2011. The book sold well and then along came Harper Collins USA, who expressed an interest in the novel, edited it and changed the title (from The Secret Keepers). What I found interesting (for those of us thinking of self-publishing) is that the novel was taken off Kindle and other e-readers whilst it was edited. Quite a few self-published authors have been picked up by publishing houses (ones that come to mind are Hugh Howey, E. L. James and James Redfield).

It’s a riveting story about a precious Guarneri del Gesu violin, its Jewish owners, and the fate of the violin and its owners throughout WWII and to the present day. Thomas manages a good cast of believable characters, who come alive as the story progresses. A slightly slow start and a bit of expository writing, but it picked up fairly quickly. My pet hate – annoying adverbs – were apparent here and there, but the story was so interesting I can forgive this.  I’ve started reading the sequel, Rachel’s Legacy.

So out of this bunch, I’d only recommend Anthony Doerr, Jill Mansell and Julie Thomas if you want a good read.

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