Recent Reads: June 2016 (+ My Favorite Reads So Far In 2016)

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Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of all the books I finished in the past month. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Want to share your bookish happenings, too? Feel free to do so in the Comments section at the end!

Huh? How did it become July so fast?! This year is flying by, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in denial about it. But time won’t slow down if I ask it to, right?

This month’s Recent Reads post has a little something extra. In addition to June’s book reviews and a preview of what I’m reading in July, I’ll also share some of my favorite reads so far in 2016. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get right to my choice for Read of the Month!
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Acts of Compassion in Literature – A Special #1000Speak Edition of “Theme: A Story’s Soul”


On February 20, 2015, 1000 Voices For Compassion will take to the blogosphere and share their thoughts and stories about compassion in all its forms (love, kindness, understanding, empathy, mercy, etc.). Many of these “Voices” are also posting articles on the subject in advance of the big day. Since I’d been debating between two ideas I like equally, I decided, “Why not pursue both, and make one the lead-in article?” 🙂

As an avid reader and a novelist-in-progress, some of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned have come from literature. So, for my lead-in to #1000Speak, I’m doing a literary “exploration” of compassion that aligns with my DIY MFA column “Theme: A Story’s Soul.” Below are some acts of compassion from books I’ve read over the years. As you read the examples, think about what you can learn from each character, as well as the impact their decisions or actions may have on other characters, their world, and the story’s audience. Maybe you’ll want to add some of these books to your wishlist if you haven’t read them yet. Either way, I hope you’ll find this sampling of literary compassion as inspiring as I do.

NOTE: Some of the following examples contain spoilers (either major and minor) that are necessary for discussing the topic at hand. Continue reading

Recent Reads: “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

Book Thief cover

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak
Historical Fiction / Young Adult
550 pages


It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the hel of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up and closed down.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Dear Mr. Zusak,

I don’t normally write epistolary book reviews. However, in the case of your best-selling novel The Book Thief, this is the most instinctive and appropriate way of sharing my thoughts. It’s not because I’m angry, distraught, or disappointed with your work. No. In fact, it’s for the opposite reason: I want to thank you for writing the newest book to find a permanent home on my “Unforgettable Reads” shelf.

The Book Thief is one of those searing tales where the reader witnesses war through a child’s eyes. The details don’t reach graphic or gory heights, yet nothing is sugarcoated. Readers see how families are torn apart, reunited, and redefined; and how massive gaps between the wealthy and the impoverished grow wider yet can still be bridged. And thanks to the setting of Germany during World War II, we also experience the disenchantment of Hitler Youth and the dangerous decision to open one’s heart to the Jewish population – again, from a child’s perspective. Sometimes, there’s nothing more rewarding than watching young characters wrestle with complex situations and emotions, and seeing their inner goodness endure in the end.

Speaking of your characters, I adored just about everyone I met in The Book Thief. Rudy, Frau Holtzapfel, Rosa Hubermann, Max Vandenberg – each was believable and well-rounded, with flaws that coaxed smiles to my face and moments of sadness that showed a new yet realistic side to them. My two favorites are no surprise, however. Liesel has so much spirit, determination, and love in her heart. Her sassiness made me laugh, and her deep desire to sop up stories and their meanings like a sponge is mind-boggling. I wish I was reading books the way she was when I was her age. And then there’s Liesel’s foster father, Hans Hubermann. A gentle, caring, artistic soul, he wanted nothing more than to see his new daughter succeed in life and keep her safe. No one could ask for a better father, either blood-relative or adoptive.

There’s also something to be said about novels that emphasize the power of the written word. Characters reading, saving books from bonfires and stealing them from libraries, recording their own lives on paper, sharing their stories with others, reviewing dictionary definitions to fully grasp a word’s meaning… I’m sure I’m missing more examples from The Book Thief, but the point is, this book is an ode to storytelling. Even the narrative style epitomizes this idea. Everyone is touched by stories at some point in their lives; and when they truly resonate with us, we feel compelled to share them with others. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now….)

I have to admit, I can’t award The Book Thief a perfect grade because it took me a while to get used to Death as the narrator. I’m not a fan of third-person omniscient POVs. In my opinion, the style seems too limitless, unrestricted. Plus, I wasn’t keen on Death sometimes drawing itself out of the narrative to speak directly to the reader. It interrupted my overall experience with Liesel’s story. Notice, however, that I said “get used to” in that first sentence. By bonding with Liesel, we bond with the supporting characters, and their stories become important to us as well. Every scene has its purpose, either for character development or plot advancement. I was also intrigued when Death shared sensation reactions (flinching at certain smells) or its admiration – even pity – for certain characters. You were able to humanize a “figure” that we the living often fear, making it a more comforting presence that many would expect.

Finally, Part 10. You and I both know what happens there, so I won’t give specifics (especially since people who haven’t read The Book Thief yet are bound to see this review). I did a double-take when I finished the first chapter of Part 10. Then, I read it again, just to make sure my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Only then did I continue on with the rest of the book. And I cried. Mr. Zusak, I rarely cry when I read. Not only did I cry because the tragedy of that section broke my heart, but because it offered devastatingly beautiful closure as well as an ember of hope, both of which made sense given the external circumstances.

So, in closing, Mr. Zusak, thank you for bringing The Book Thief to the world. It took me to dark, frightening, and sorrowful places at times, but it also buoyed my spirits and gave me another reason to be grateful for reading. That’s what a great book – no, a incredible book – should always accomplish, regardless of its target audience.

All the best from a fellow “book thief,”
Sara L.

Have you read The Book Thief? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.

Recent Reads: “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See cover

All The Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Historical Fiction


From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).

Rating: 5 / 5

If you’ve read my book reviews before, you know I rarely give perfect grades. Even if I love a novel, I usually feel uncertain about some part of the story. Then I read Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. Wow. Even days after I finished reading, that’s the best word I can use to describe it: an awestruck, soul-stirred “Wow.” I’ll do my best to summarize my observations and feelings as concisely as I can – because not only did I love this book from the first page to the last, but I also couldn’t find anything I’d do differently.

All The Light We Cannot See illustrates the lives of the blind French girl Marie-Laure and the German orphan Werner as they grow up on different sides of the trenches of World War II. Each scene switches between Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s point of view, with a couple other stragetic perspectives that raise the stakes for both protagonists. In addition, each part (or large chunks of scenes) switches between the present (Germany’s bombing of Saint-Malo in August 1944) and specified years in Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s childhoods. All of the flashbacks are crucial in allowing the readers to bond with the characters, and important in showing how the story culminates during those fateful days in Saint-Malo.

Speaking of character-reader relationships in All The Light We Cannot See: I can’t think of a single character I didn’t bond with. I adore Marie-Laure for her bravery, curiosity, and astuteness, and Werner for his impassioned intelligence and his desire to hang onto his goodness despite the terrible cause he’s part of. Then there’s peculiar Uncle Etienne, whose fierce love and engineering know-how protect Marie-Laure; Madame Manec, whose canned peaches are to die for and small-scale rebellion against the Nazis makes you cheer; Volkheimer, the gentle war “giant” in constant awe of Werner’s engineering genius; Frederick, a budding expert on birds and a tragic example of what happens when a Hitler Youth swims against the tide; and Werner’s little sister Jutta, who’s bright like her brother and perhaps more aware of the dangers he’ll face in the war. I could go on, but the point is that all of Doerr’s characters seem so real, it’s impossible to not fall in love with them.

Now, Doerr’s writing style. If an ocean somewhere ebbed and flowed with his descriptions and sentences, I’d wade in it all day. That’s how evocative and powerful Doerr’s writing is – and he doesn’t write in that manner for beauty’s sake. His word choices, vivid verbs, and inventive metaphors fit every scene where they appear and dig right into the heart of each character. They set your heart a-pounding during the raid on Saint-Malo. They steal your breath when Marie-Laure explores beaches and grottos and when Werner listens to French science lesson broadcasts on his radio. They swell in your throat as both children learn of the horrors of their world, both everyday and due to the war. Somewhere around Page 50, I started keeping a journal of the words and phrases that leapt out at me. I couldn’t tell you the last time a novel inspired me to do that – which speaks volumes about Doerr’s technique.

Lastly, I’m floored by the amount of research Doerr must have done for All The Light We Cannot See. Not just about WWII-era France and Germany, but about seemingly small details such as mollusks, radios, blindness, birds, gemstones. These details add richness and vibrancy to the story, draw you closer to the characters, and ensnare your heart so it’s fully invested in the outcome. This book had me in a constant state of admiration and wonder; I couldn’t help but marvel at the time and painstaking effort Doerr must have spent on completing his manuscript and ensuring the accuracy of even the tiniest facts.

I may read mostly fantasy, but when I read any book I always look for a compelling story, believable characters, and a fluid writing style. Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See is a stunning example of all three elements. It’s so well written, and so urgent and successful in convincing you to read another scene, then another, and another, until you lose all track of time. It’s also a prime example of the power of words on a reader. It makes you laugh, cry, hold your breath, bite your fingernails. Most of all, it shows us the impact of life-changing choices that must be made in seconds, and the uncanny ability some people have to see the light – be it compassion, beauty, or potential – in darkened hours and places when others cannot.

Have you read All The Light We Cannot See? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Amazon or Goodreads.