‘All the Light we Cannot See’ Anthony Doerr

It’s been a while since I posted, as I have been reading the truly epic and totally absorbing ‘All the Light we cannot See’.   I’m not sure I am going to be able to do justice to this book, as it really is quite a beautiful piece of writing.

Set mostly through World War Two we see the story from two very different young people’s eyes.  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris.  She has become blind, and her father is her protector, but at the same time guiding her to some independence.  A talented locksmith at a museum, he creates a city in miniature to help Marie-Laure navigate her way safely.  At the heart of the museum is hidden a fabulously unique diamond, surrounded by curse, myth and mystery, which Marie-Laure’s father is to keep safe through the war.  We also meet Werner, a German orphan living with his younger sister in a home run by a nun.  Werner discovers a talent for understanding electronics, creating his own radio out of discarded pieces, and listening entranced to a series of science programmes for children from across the ether.  Marie-Laure’s story takes her to her Uncle’s house in Saint-Malo, where they flee.  But life becomes harder & harder under German occupation, and they become involved in a resistance movement using secret radios to keep families in touch, and relay information.  Werner is soon noticed as extremely gifted, and is moved to a school where the harsh regime is intended to prepare boys for service to the Reich.  A terrible event leaves Werner’s only friend brain damaged by violence, and leaves Werner doubting himself as he could do little to save his friend.  Eventually the call comes and Werner is part of a small team sent out to track down illegal radio transmissions and to deal with those making them.  Marie-Laure seems to be a target in a number of ways.  The hidden radio transmitter they use to broadcast is being traced by Werner’s group, but at the same time an army General is determined to track down the missing diamond.  He is tenacious, and obsessed by finding the jewel.  As the net closes, she finds herself alone, and all these threads tangle to bring the main characters together.

The book is huge, but the short sentences and chapters keep the pace moving along speedily.  I found the first few chapters confusing, but a little way in I was completely hooked.  The characters are very well created, I felt especially drawn to the nun running the home where Werner and his sister grow up, and the housekeeper in Saint-Malo.  The novel, right at the end, revisits many of the main characters, tying up ends and really hit home to me that in the 70s (my youth) there were thousands upon thousands of people who were living lives following those terrible events who were just a little older than I am now.



‘The Girl In Between’ Sarah Carroll

Set in Ireland, ‘The Girl In Between’ is a swift, but very poignant read.  We meet a homeless mother and daughter, and it wasn’t until I started to write this review that I realised neither is actually named at any point.  Their life on the streets has been truly horrific, with the girl trying to help her alcohol and drug addicted mother be stable.  After a frightening incident on the streets, details of which are gradually revealed as the book progresses, they finally find an abandoned warehouse ‘the castle’ to squat in.  Just outside is ‘The Caretaker’, also homeless, but with a terrible tie to the building.  Ma gradually become more and more unstable, disappearing for hours at a time and terrified of being found by ‘the authorities’, she keeps her daughter hidden in the castle.  However it becomes clear that it is due for development, and the threat gets closer day by day.  Swinging between the recent past and the present, the girl observes life around the castle, which was closely observed and beautifully drawn.

This book has a twist at the end, which makes most of it make sense, although I am left puzzling about one sequence of events with the gift of a burger – but I can’t say exactly what without giving the twist away & I am not in the spoiler business!

A lovely, thought-provoking read.

‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ Becky Albertalli

One of the brilliant YA book developments in recent years has been the rise of fiction reflecting a more diverse society.  My school library is proud to have a wide range of titles offered that address LGBTQ+ themes.  When I have a look to see what is coming up on recommended booklists in this area ‘Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ keeps popping up, so I thought it was about time I tried it.

Simon is 16 and gay.  He knows this about himself, but along with all other 16-year olds around the globe, there’s a lot about his life that Simon doesn’t get.  As we first meet him, no one else around him knows he is gay, except the mysterious Blue, who he only knows through messaging.  He feels he can truly be himself with Blue, and they both wrestle with how to come out to friends & family.  Their relationship is honest and very sweet, as well as giving some very funny moments.  Simon accidentally uses a school computer and doesn’t log out properly, so a classmate sees his messages to Blue, and uses this to blackmail Simon into helping him meet a girl he fancies.  This storyline comes from someone who knows teens very well indeed, as it’s just the sort of thing that happens on an all too regular basis in any school!  Simon becomes determined to work out who Blue is, and meet him, but Blue is equally determined to remain a mystery.  Simon is supported by a lovely family and 3 friends who are all drawn very differently in the book.  Their characters are fully rounded, and I think this is an important aspect in making this such a good read.  Nothing is 2-D- it all feels very realistic.

As the story continues, the emails with Blue become gradually more tender & intimate, with Simon certain that Blue is someone at his school.  Odd clues are dropped, but still he is in the dark.  They both agonise over coming out to their families, and eventually both achieve it but in quite different ways.  I admire the author for not making this the ‘my family doesn’t understand me’ issue it might have been – I think this is often unusual in YA fiction.  Much that I have read has focussed on misunderstandings and estrangement that is equally important as this will sadly reflect the experience of some young people.  But the happy acceptance in this book will also reflect a realistic experience for many and it’s important that both are out there.

This book wraps up very nicely into a satisfying conclusion and I will be recommending it to all our students.

‘Beyond the Wall’ Tanya Landman

Tanya continues to be one of my favourite writers for young people (& I am very lucky to have met her at an event in my school) ‘Beyond the Wall’ does not disappoint!

Set in one of my favourite historical periods, Roman Britain, Cassia is a slave.  She finds herself having to flee her home and only known relative, her brother, following an incident where she ended up maiming her master.  Alone and desperate, she makes her way to London where she meets Marcus – a Roman unlike any other she has met.  He is charming and is able to help her hide, as her furious master searches to reclaim his possession.  She decides to travel north, beyond the Empire’s reach past Hadrian’s Wall.  The journey seems impossible, but with the help of Marcus and the other slaves who decide to join her on the journey and some clever planning and a measure of good luck it looks as if they might actually make it.  But overhearing a chance comment from Marcus, Cassia wonders if he is all he seems to be.

I loved this book.  It is a great adventure, and very pacily written.  There were a few moments where I had to suspend disbelief, but I thoroughly enjoyed this Roman romp!  The book rounds everything off in a very satisfying way, and our students will love it!

‘The Hate U Give’ Angie Thomas

Reading ‘The Hate U Give’ made it immediately clear that this was about a world very far away from my own experiences.  Set in poor, black America, it really couldn’t have been further from my own white, middle-class British background – and that’s the point.  This feels like a story that was desperate to be told, in all its stark brutality and personal ground shifting essence.

We follow sixteen year old Starr, living in her poor, black neighbourhood, but travelling to a predominantly white school in the suburbs.  These two worlds seem inevitably destined to crash.  Starr is the only witness to the brutal and senseless murder of her lifelong friend, Khalil.  Despite her bravery in speaking out about the circumstances of his death (and, let’s face it, no teen should ever have to do that), there is uncertainty around whether the police officer responsible will be held to account, and community tensions inevitably mount to breaking point.  Starr has the almost entirely unswerving support of her family and her (white) boyfriend.  Torn between staying within the community, and moving away to what may well be a safer life her family is shown to be so strong and loving.  And the community itself is full of conflicts – run by violent, drug dealing gangs who at one and the same time offer a kind of ‘protection’, money and a real sense of community belonging.  The everyday people trying to get by day to day are under no illusions about the threat of the gangs, and in the end their utter togetherness gives a message of hope and possibility.

This book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel, and, as I said, has the feel of a story wanting to be told.  I found my understandings shifting as I read more – surely the best a book can hope to achieve.  The world is complex – this book told me that nothing is as clear-cut as we might hope it to be.  Understanding of, and empathy for others, without jumping to judgement, is surely the ultimate we can strive for.

I gather the film rights have been optioned – it could also be powerful stuff if handled well.  In one review we hear the book “does have the potential to move the empathy dial in thousands of small and personal ways.”  This perfectly sums up my personal reaction to this book.  Read it!

‘Ink’ by Alice Broadway

This was another very different read!  ‘Ink’ is set in a world where your family connections, achievements, significant events and any transgressions are marked on an individual’s skin as tattoos, so that others can see who you really are.  Set against a tense backdrop where outsiders who bear no tattoos (‘blanks’) are seen as a threat to this community’s way of life, Leora is growing up believing that this gives order to her world, and the skin ‘books’ that are created from those who have died means they live on in some important way and allows them to be forever remembered.  However, the death of her father sets a train of events in motion that leave Leora questioning everything she held to be true.  A missing piece of skin leads to shocking revelations that will change her world forever.

Themes of faith and belief in an afterlife are key to this book.  It is also a coming of age story, with three of the main characters just leaving education to start forging lives for themselves in their chosen field of work.  These are all themes that will resonate with our students.  The book itself has the most beautiful cover, carefully reflecting the story inside.

‘Replica’ Lauren Oliver

Moved to write about ‘Replica’ the very moment I have finished it!  I have been longing for something a little different in the world of YA writing, and this was it!  2 books in one, the same story told from 2 very different viewpoints.  This I suspect was probably so hard to write to make it work, but it was seamless, clever and rather than being repetitive really did add to the whole story, making it feel complete.

I read the Lyra side first.  Kept in a research station on a private island Lyra’s life is one of uncertainty, control and experimentation.  She sees clones, or replicas, some more ‘viable’ than others all created for an as yet unnamed purpose.  During a sudden and violent attack, Lyra and a boy clone known as 72 manage to escape into a world they are utterly unprepared for.  During their escape, they are found by Gemma and Jake.  Gemma tells the other side of the story, essentially the same, but each with their own individual revelations and interpretations.  Gemma knows there is something strange going on in her life.  Cosseted beyond anything that is reasonable by her far too overprotective parents, Gemma starts to explore more of her family history, and her father’s secretive connection to a research facility called Haven.  Determined to find answers she travels to Florida and the Haven centre, and the stories of both girls become interlinked.

Although reflecting the same essential basic story, the 2 sides are told in different voices, with very different perspectives.  I wondered if this might feel repetitive, but it was anything but.  The stories developed together in a way that felt complete – filling in gaps and giving another perspective.  There is also burgeoning romance for the two couples, which I felt was introduced really well.  Important to the story, but not overwhelming and feeling pretty true.

You can probably tell I loved this book!  Some of our students will baulk at the size (it is 2 books in one after all), but I can see this being very popular.  It is also very visual, and could make a great film.