All that said, I've no idea where to start because if you fancy a read that is different, this is it.
Oskar Schell is a nine year old who is interested in everything. Primarily he's an inventor but that doesn't stop him being into natural history, making jewellry, astronomy, playing the tamborine and so on. He lives with his mother and 'Ron', his mother's new partner. It quickly becomes apparent that Oskar is grieving and we soon learn that his beloved father was killed in the 9/11 attacks two years previously.
While rooting around in his father's closet - which has never been cleared - Oskar finds a blue vase and accidently drops it on the floor, shattering it. Inside he finds an envelope marked 'Black' and inside that, a key. Investigating further he finds that the lock it belongs to is not in their appartment. Oskar decides that the key must have been of some importance to his father and assumes that 'Black' must refer to someone of that name. Thus he sets about tracing every person named Black in the entire New York phonebook.
Along the way we learn that the member of the family closest to Oskar now, is his grandmother and, paralelling Oskar's search, we hear her story of her early years in Germany and the bombing of Dresden. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with Oskar's father. He could no longer speak and when she fell pregnant was unable to bear the thought that he might one day lose his child.
Oskar's search for peace of mind and possibly even to discover how his father died in the attack - there was no body - leads him through the five boroughs of New York (one lovely story Oskar's father told him was about the possibility that there were once six) and to touch the lives of many strangers.
Goodness, what an amazing book. Some of the details are so touching or downright tragic that I was moved to tears. And yet it's not a sad book really. Oskar is such a wonderful character, intelligent, earnest, compassionate and so full of hope, as children are, that you can't help but root for him in his quest for answers. I have to say I did wonder if the author had endowed Oskar with more intelligence than his years would suggest. And would a nine year old really be allowed to wander New York in that manner? It doesn't really matter, I'm good at suspending disbelief and the story itself makes you forget any lingering doubts you might have about reality.
The writing style is weird. The book is illustrated with photos of whatever might be being discussed on the page and in places there are pages with just one sentence or where the writing is so dense you can't read it. All this adds to the experience of reading something very unusual and reminded me slightly of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Although, to the best of my knowledge Oskar is not supposed to be autistic as the young boy in that book is. Some might find themselves irritated by the style. My husband asked me what on earth I was reading and shook his head when I tried to describe it. It's not a book he would have the patience to read because patience is required. This is not a pacey, 'bare bones' sort of a book.
I liked the additional historical detail. Though perhaps 'liked' is not the correct word to use - the description of the bombing of Dresden in WW2 shocked me to the core. Ditto a testimony from a woman who suvived the bombing of Hiroshima and was searching for her daughter. Oskar's retelling of things he had read about 9/11 were also gruelling. I've read very little about it to be honest, feeling that I have sufficient imagination to imagine the horror of dying like that, without needing to read about it. It did me no harm though and probably did me a lot of good - one can be a bit cosy in one's life sometimes.
All in all this is not a book for everyone. 'Pretentious' is a word I've seen used to describe it (I don't agree). Sadness and tragedy abound and reading how a nine year old child comes to terms with a terrible loss is maybe not everyone's idea of entertaining reading. But I'm so glad I read it and if you can steel yourself it's well worth the effort.