Monthly Archives: July 2015

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

the book thief by markus zusak

I know for certain that I won’t be able to do this book justice in my review. I do not have the words to convey how Zusak has made the most despairing of times beautiful, the most horrific events life affirming and the history that we know like the back of our hands newly thought provoking.  Yet he has done so and if you read only one book this year, let this be it.

The book thief of the title is a young girl named Liesel, growing up in Nazi Germany in the home of adoptive parents after her father is taken away for being a Communist. She is plagued by dreams of her brother’s death and stole her first book in the aftermath – a guide to grave digging that fell in the snow during his funeral. Liesel has an admirer, Rudy, who is obsessed with Jesse Owens, and the two are inseparable. But not even Rudy is allowed to know when her adoptive parents decide to hide Max, a Jew, in their basement. Max too has bad dreams and the two form a powerful relationship that revolves around stories and words. Liesel collects discarded newspapers for Max so he can do the crosswords, she gives him weather forecasts – “the sky is blue today, Max, and there is a big long cloud, and it’s stretched out, like a rope. At the end of it, the sun is like a yellow hole…” – and one day she even builds a snowman for him in the basement. One of the most moving parts of the book is when Max paints out the pages of a copy of Mein Kampf and uses the new whitewashed pages to write and illustrate The Standover Man, a short story for Liesel about their friendship. Later he creates another book The Word Shaker, a fable about the Fuhrer, who Max dreams of taking on in the boxing ring every night and who plants words like seeds so he can grow forests of hateful thoughts,. and hides it for Liesel to find (There’s an image of one of the pages from Max’s book here.)

Every character in this wonderful book is rounded and complex. From Liesel’s adoptive father Hans Huberman, a part time decorator and dedicated accordion player who teaches Liesel to read, to Ilsa Hermann, the grief stricken mayor’s wife, who lets Liesel read the books in their library. Every word on the page feels right and the quirks Zusak employs work beautifully, especially the way he plays with meaning and definitions. He uses understatement to great effect – how could he do otherwise when the subject matter is what it is? There’s no melodrama in the telling and no melodrama in the events unfolding. When Liesel reads from one of her stolen books to calm those hiding from bombs in a bunker, she does so, we are told “with no fanfare”. I’ve not seen the screen adaptation of this novel but I suspect there will be fanfare and I suspect it will reduce me to tears, but Zusak’s simplicity is far more emotive and the tears that flowed when I read the book came from deep inside me.

Our narrator throughout is Death – not a scythe bearing Grim Reaper figure but an altogether gentler, kinder manifestation, who eases people out of life, frees them of their fear and carefully carries off their souls in his cupped hands, like newborns. Death who is desolate when Rudy dies alone, greets Liesel like the old friend she is, and who sees the good in everyone at the last. His commentary, often taking the form of the words on a gravestone, helps us find meaning in what he calls the beauty and brutality of life, whilst his interventions are pithy, wise and always honest. With Death as narrator we get a compassionate, insightful perspective on the Holocaust, though this is no apologist’s version of events. Only Death could tell us how even the clouds tried to look the other way on June 23rd 1942 when 566 Poles were gassed in the first gas chamber in Birkenau  And it’s Death who delivers one last epitaph at the end of THE BOOK THIEF: “I am haunted by humans”. Zusak has written a book that perfectly justifies that truth and one that I am sure will itself haunt me for many weeks and months to come.


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not that kind of girl by lena dunham

I’ve yet to watch GIRLS but have found Lena Dunham’s various pieces of journalism clever, witty and salient so was hoping for more of the same from this book, which is essentially a collection of essays about her experiences of being a young woman. The subject matter is more personal than political but Dunham’s trade mark honesty and humour, as well as her enormous writing talent, are unmistakeable and whilst there’s less up front politics than I was hoping for, there’s plenty just beneath the surface of some of the stories.

Dunham, it is fair to say, comes across as self obsessed and overly keen on sharing, but I guess that’s the point – no one who wasn’t would want to describe her first sexual encounters, teenage food diaries and therapy history in such detail. It’s this which makes her appeal to her main target audience, especially as it goes hand in hand with a refreshing willingness to openly acknowledge these traits as her bread and butter and her main motivation in life. She may well be the spoiled product of a very particular liberal, middle class, eccentric New York upbringing, but that’s hardly her fault, and the point of the essays is that her feelings, reactions and experiences have a commonality that transcends Dunham’s own context.

Personally, I think Caitlin Moran does this style of literature far better (and far funnier) but the more of these voices out there the better – especially for the young girls and women  reading them.

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the maze runner trilogy by james dashner

I saw a trailer for THE SCORCH TRIALS and this piqued my interest in the books. They are OK but I don’t think I’ll bother going to see the films. The premise is that most of the human race has been infected by something called The Flare, which was unleashed in a government experiment and slowly eats away at your brain, turning you mad. Those who appear immune are part of a programme to develop a cure, which entails putting them through various trials to see how they react and rebuild various pathways in people’s brains.

Things I liked about the series:

  • In common with much of this genre of fiction, there’s a powerful sense of right and wrong in the big picture, but the grey areas are explored too, by the way individuals respond and relate to events and the world around them.
  • There are strong, well developed female characters who provide more than just love interest for the main protagonist, Thomas. He in turn is sensitive, caring and complex, as are several of the other boys in the books.
  • Each novel has a distinct landscape that gives it a very different feel to the others in the series (much like eg HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy) and those landscape are vivid and very visual.
  • The endless double-crossing, twists and manipulation – the reader is always at the same disadvantage as Thomas, including about his own role in initiating the trials, and that keeps things interesting.
  • Alec, a central character in THE KILL ORDER, who is by the far the most interesting and likeable across the entire series.

Things I liked less:

  • The ending is far too abrupt – or at least it was when reading on my Kindle and not realising that THE KILL ORDER, which is really just a novella, was tacked on the end. The conclusion of THE DEATH CURE is also hugely idealistic and unsatisfying, even for a fan of happy, idealistic endings, like myself, with no real political resolution to the issues of control and corruption that have been centre stage through much of the series.
  • The whole series feels like it’s written with a franchise in mind – from the  grand sets, which are pitch perfect for the big screen, to the extra books, which don’t really add that much in terms of plot and could just have been woven into the original trilogy.
  • The Grievers, automated slugs who wield spikes and shears, and can administer stings that bring on disturbing symptoms not dissimilar to taking large quantities of acid. They make this list not because of their inherent unpleasantness but because I felt they were superfluous and because I prefer my baddies to be human.

The plot is far too complicated to reprise in any detail but overall it works, it’s convincing and gripped me for a few weeks. Credit where credit’s due, Dashner has started with a compelling idea and turned it into a story that’s entertaining and asks all the right questions. There’s just one problem: I read every one of these new young adult trilogies in the expectation it will match up to THE HUNGER GAMES and I am repeatedly disappointed when it doesn’t.

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