Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Australia, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Catherine Steadman, Children/YA, crime/thriller, Daunt Books, Elisa Shua Dusapin, England, Fiction, Headline Review, Ireland, Jennifer Johnston, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea

Four Quick Reviews: Elisa Shua Dusapin, Jennifer Johnston, Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, and Catherine Steadman

As 2020 draws to a close, I’m keen to wrap-up all my reviews so that I’m not playing catch-up well into the new year. (I will do my books of the year post tomorrow.)

So here are four quick reviews of books I have read recently. They are a good reflection of my eclectic reading tastes because they include a translated novel (from Korea/France), a literary novel (from Ireland), a young adult novel (by two Aboriginal writers) and a psychological thriller-cum-mystery (from England).

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Winter in Sokcho’  by Elisa Shua Dusapin
Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 154 pages; 2020. Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

This intriguing novel is set in a South Korean tourist town, not far from the border with North Korea, during the offseason. The unnamed French-Korean narrator is a young woman in her early 20s who feels like an outsider but has no real desire to travel or live elsewhere. She has a disinterested boyfriend, who heads to Seoul to follow his dream of becoming a model, while she remains behind in Sokcho to help run a near-empty guest house. Her mother, who works in a nearby fish market, is critical of her daughter’s failure to get married and makes snide comments about her weight (she’s so thin you can see her ribs).

When a young Frenchman arrives at the guest house so he can work on his drawings (he’s a cartoonist), the narrator develops an uneasy one-sided relationship with him, acting as his tour guide and (unknown to her) muse for his art.

The entire novella is embued with a sense of melancholia, helped partly by the pared-back, hypnotic prose in which it’s written, but it also has a page-turning quality because the reader can’t help but wonder if the pair will ever become lovers. I  really enjoyed this debut and ate it up in a matter of hours.  Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal liked it too.

‘The Captains and the Kings’  by Jennifer Johnston
Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 152 pages; 1999. 

Jennifer Johnston is my favourite living writer and this book, her debut, first published in 1972 when she was in her 40s, earned her the Author’s Club First Novel Award.

There’s an aching, melancholy quality to this story, about Mr Predergast, a well-travelled elderly Anglo-Irishman, a widower, who now lives alone in his crumbling Big House with just his (drunken) gardener for company. When a local lad, Diarmid, is foisted on him by his parents because they’re worried he won’t amount to anything and needs a reliable job, Mr Predergast is dismissive. He doesn’t want to employ him.

But Diarmid, who is friendless and lonely himself, doesn’t take no for an answer and eventually the pair develop an uneasy friendship that gives Mr Predergast a renewed lease of life, one that helps him get over the loss of his elder brother in the Great War and eases the pain of his late (overbearing) mother’s preference for her older son. As the pair become closer — an old man at the end of his life, a teenager on the brink of his — the local community, headed by the vicar, does not approve of the relationship between a Protestant man and a Catholic boy — with bittersweet consequences. Lisa at ANZLitLovers liked this one too.

‘Catching Teller Crow’  by Ambelin & Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 180 pages; 2019. 

This is one of the more unusual books I have read this year — a young adult novel written by an Aboriginal brother and sister duo — that employs Aboriginal storytelling devices in which time is not linear. It’s billed as a crime novel, but it incorporates elements of magic realism, has occasional chapters written entirely in verse, is narrated by a dead teenager, features an indigenous ghost as a witness and focuses on the “enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls”.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation by a grief-stricken white detective and his Aboriginal daughter, Beth Teller, who has not yet “crossed over to the other side” having recently been killed in a car accident. Working together, the pair uncover a series of clues that suggest a fire in a local boarding house may have been deliberately lit in order to cover a hideous crime. A potential witness, a teenage girl called Isobel Catching, helps them build the case.

The story, which weaves colonial history, violence and grief into the narrative, has earned two of Australia’s most prestigious writing awards: the Victorian Premier YA Prize for Literature, and Best Young Adult Novel at the Aurealis Awards. I found it hard work, and a little bit out of my comfort zone, but it’s a good one to try if you are looking for something different.

‘Mr Nobody’  by Catherine Steadman
Fiction – Kindle edition; Simon & Schuster; 400 pages; 2020. 

Last year I read Steadman’s debut novel, Something in the Water, which I really enjoyed, so I was looking forward to this new one published earlier in the year.

The story starts with a handsome man washed up on a Norfolk beach who cannot remember his name and has no ID on his person. In fact, he has no memory at all. A young neuropsychiatrist from London, Dr Emma Lewis, is drafted in to determine if he is faking it, but Dr Lewis has her own mysterious past, having been in a witness protection program for the past 14 years, and the decision to accept the job is a risky one.

The author plays her hand carefully, drip-feeding information bit by bit, so the doctor’s back story doesn’t become clear until you are two-thirds of the way through the novel, making this a proper page-turner. There are enough hints that the amnesiac may also have a dodgy past — perhaps he was an assassin or a spy or worked for the military in some capacity.

Unfortunately, this curious medical mystery goes a bit over-the-top toward the end and heads into psychological thriller territory with a wholly unbelievable denouement. Up until the 80% mark (yes, I read this on a Kindle) I really enjoyed the story, but it was let down by a ludicrous ending that tied up all the loose bits too neatly, a common fault of the genre, I guess. And at 400 pages, it was far too long…

2016 Stella Prize, Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, short stories, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Vintage Australia

‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 215 pages; 2015.

Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms is the second collection of short stories on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist. (The first, is Elizabeth Harrower’s A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories which I’ve already reviewed.)

According to the author’s biography, she’s written several books for children and teenagers — and I think it shows. Without wishing to sound snobby about it, this volume feels like young adult fiction rather than literary fiction per se. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a genre I seek out. That means this review reflects my personal reading tastes; I’m sure there will be other people out there who will love and adore these stories — they just weren’t for me.

Teenage angst in the 1980s

Funnily enough, because most of the 10 stories are set in the 1980s — the era in which I grew up — I had expected the tales to resonate. There are certainly enough music references — the first story, for instance, is called Like a Virgin, after the song by Madonna — to transport me back to those (horrible) high school days, when teenage life revolved around which bands were in fashion, who was going out with who, and which person had got drunk at the last party.

But each story is written in such a flat way and is so devoid of emotion that I lost interest very quickly. They’re not poorly written by any stretch of the imagination — they’re easy to read, have well-developed settings and characters, and there’s always some kind of conflict at the heart of them which the central character is trying to resolve  — they just lack “punch”.

They feel aimed at teenagers, not just in the language that is used, but in the subject matter, too. They are mostly coming-of-age stories (a genre I do like) featuring teenagers getting drunk, discovering sex and developing alliances with school friends. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of hatred for parents and school teachers, and a lot of daydreaming about sex and escape. Many of the characters are grappling with peer pressure and the need to fit in. (Subjects, I admit, that I lived through once and don’t really want to live through again!)

Adult life

Two of the stories are more adult orientated: Chemotherapy Bay is about a young man with cancer whose girlfriend is sleeping with someone else, Together Alone is about a 30-something woman dealing with the palliative care of her mother. A third story, the titular Six Bedrooms, straddles that time between teenagehood and adulthood, showing what it is like to live in a shared household with people you don’t know very well and how easy it can be to “read” someone wrongly because you’re naive and lack life experience.

Perhaps, for that reason, these are the stories I enjoyed most — and they were the ones that had an emotional depth to them. Every now and then, a little pearl of a sentence would pop up, such as this paragraph from Chemotherapy Bay:

She kissed him before he got out of the car. His breath was starting to smell like the hospital; his kiss was a cold, chemical little offering, like a mollusc after the tide has gone out.

And this one, from Together Alone:

Jimmy and I sat on the sea wall with our feet in the water and watched a school of zebra fish speed past, propping and changing directions like sheep being herded by a helicopter.

Interestingly, while each story in the collection is self-contained, there is one character, Tasha, who grows up with an absent father, an alcoholic mother and a missing brother — how’s that for a set of issues to deal with? — who flits in and out of them. Indeed, Tasha “bookends” the collection by appearing in the first story as a young teen stealing her mother’s wine and the last story in which she is a single mother having to deal with her own mother’s impending death. She appears in two others in the middle. This technique does add some narrative structure to the collection, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t save it.

For other takes on Six Bedrooms, please see Tony’s review at Messenger’s Booker and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

Note, there doesn’t seem to be a UK publication date for this one. I ordered my copy from the Book Depository and waited several weeks for it to arrive.

This is my 18th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 14th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, New York, Publisher, R.J. Palacio, RHCP Digital, Setting, USA

‘The Julian Chapter’ by R. J. Palacio

Julian-chapter

Fiction – Kindle edition; RHCP Digital; 88 pages; 2014.

About 18 months ago I did something I don’t normally do: I read a children’s book — R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. It was such a powerful story, with a universal message, that I banged on about it for months afterwards (to anyone who would listen), bought copies for friends and family, and added it to my top 10 reads for 2013.

And then, some time last year, I discovered that the author had written an additional chapter for the book, which could be bought separately in ebook format. About five seconds later I had The Julian Chapter downloaded on to my Kindle… the wonder (no wordplay intended) of modern technology.

The school bully

The original book chronicles 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman’s efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at the first mainstream school he’s ever attended. Up until now, Auggie has been home educated because he was born with a serious facial deformity requiring 27 different operations. At Beecher Prep, his fortunes are mixed and one particular student — Julian — bullies him because of the way he looks.

While almost everyone in Wonder —  including Auggie’s parents and siblings, fellow students and even his teacher — gets their turn to narrate a chapter, one voice is missing: the reader never gets to hear Julian’s side of the story. Hence, this new additional chapter, published last year.

What emerges is a sometimes surprising, occasionally infuriating and always compelling narrative told in a distinctive young boy’s voice:

I know it can’t be easy for him to look in the mirror every day, or walk down the street. But that’s not my problem. My problem is that everything’s different since he’s been coming to my school. The kids are different. I’m different. And it sucks big-time.

The author does a lovely and considered job of ensuring that Julian is not simply an evil child intent on wreaking havoc. She makes him rather a complicated 11-year-old who is wrestling with issues of his own — anxiety that leads to “night terrors”. And while Julian’s bad behaviour is never excused, there’s enough insight into his character and his inner-most feelings to explain some of his attitudes and how they came about. (His parents, it would seem, have quite a lot to answer for.)

His relationship with his French grandmother is touchingly drawn, especially when he stays with her, makes his “confession” and learns the concept of remorse.

Overall, the story is heartwarming — and redemptive.

Universal truths

The Julian Chapter is written very much in the same vein as Wonder — it’s quick-paced and easy-to-read. It’s also moralistic in an overly prescriptive, hit-you-on-the-head kind of way, but even so, sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of universal truths, like this one from Julian’s teacher:

“You know,” he said, “one of the things you learn when you get old like me is that sometimes a new situation will come along, and you’ll have no idea what to do. There’s no rule book that tells you how to act in every given situation in life, you know? So what I always say is that it’s always better to err on the side of kindness. That’s the secret. If you don’t know what to do, just be kind.”

Since publication of The Julian Chapter, the author has written another chapter called Pluto. This one looks at Auggie’s story through the eyes of his best and oldest friend, Christopher. I hope to read and review it soonish…

Author, Bodley Head, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, Publisher, R.J. Palacio, Setting, USA

‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio

Wonder

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bodley Head; 320 pages; 2012.

R.J. Palacio’s Wonder is one of those rare “crossover” books with universal appeal. It is aimed at children and a young adult audience, but it is such a gorgeous story — one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes — that it has quickly rocketed to the top of my favourite reads of the year.

Adjusting to school life

Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep.

My name is August. I won’t describe to you what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

When the book opens, Auggie narrates his experiences in a voice that is engaging, humble and honest. He conveys the fear of meeting new people and seeing their reactions to his face. He knows why people avoid or shun him, and while it hurts, he accepts it as a normal part of his existence.  Despite the fact he’s had 27 operations, “eats like a tortoise” and has cheeks that “look punched in”, there is nary a trace of self pity.

Other characters in the novel — including Auggie’s older sister Via and his friends Will and Summer — take it in turns to narrate the story, so that you get to see Auggie from a range of different perspectives.

A story with a message

Despite Wonder being aimed at a far younger audience than me, I absolutely adored this book. While I did feel emotionally manipulated on occasion (I cried several times and the ending just killed me), I truly didn’t mind. That’s because I think the message behind the story — that you should not judge people on looks alone and that we should all be kind to one another  — is an important and universal one. As an adult, it was nice to be reminded of that.

Yes, the book has some “Americanisms” and yes, I sometimes felt characters adopted a patronising tone with Auggie. But as a book to pull the heart strings, make you think about the world in a slightly different way and get you to appreciate your own good health and fortune, I could not think of a better read. I not only fell in love with Auggie’s lovely nature and bright personality, I also fell in love with his charming, supportive family and his generous, open-minded school principal, Mr Tushman.

Of course, the book isn’t all sweetness and light, because it also features some horrible people, including school bully Julian and his shallow mother, who tries to (unbelievably) Photoshop Auggie out of the official class photograph. But without them, the story would lack the tension and the drama that makes it so emotive and readable.

Essentially, this is the kind of book you just want to rush out and tell everyone to read — I’ve already ordered my eight-year-old niece a copy.

If you’re intrigued by the sound of Wonder and wish to find out more, do visit the author’s official website. Note that an adult edition of the book will be published in the UK by Black Swan on 1 August.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, dystopian, England, Fiction, Louise Lawrence, Publisher, Red Fox, science fiction, Setting

‘Children of the Dust’ by Louise Lawrence

Children-of-the-dust

Fiction – paperback; Red Fox; 174 pages; 2002.

When Louise Lawrence’s young adult novel Children of the Dust was first published in 1985 I would have been its target audience. During my teenage years nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner — and even though I grew up in Australia, far from the machinations of the Cold War, we were still mired in the debate over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

I’m glad I didn’t read Lawrence’s novel at the time though — it would have fed my paranoia and teenage anxiety and upset me greatly.

A tale of the apocalypse

The story is set in England and is about as apocalyptic as they come. It’s divided into three parts — titled Sarah, Ophelia and Simon — and spans three generations over half a century. (Sarah and Ophelia are half-sisters who never meet, and Simon is Ophelia’s grandson.)

When the book opens the world has just erupted into nuclear war and bombs have been dropped on Hamburg and Leningrad. In the UK, Bristol Radio reports that London, Cardiff, Cheltenham and Gloucester have been bombed. Birmingham is next in line.

Sarah, sent home from school, takes cover in the kitchen of her Cotswolds home with her step-mother, Veronica, and her two half-siblings, Catherine and William. Her father, a lecturer at Bristol University, doesn’t have time to drive home, so it’s assumed he never survives the radioactive fallout.

A book of three parts

This first part of the book is hugely distressing as the family shelter in their tightly sealed kitchen, living on canned goods and watching the world outside turn grey and eerie as they await their sure deaths from radiation sickness.

The second part is more upbeat: it’s been 20 years since the war and life has somehow lingered on, albeit in a government bunker in the Bristol-Bath catchment area, where Sarah’s dad, Bill, has been living all this time, unaware of his family’s fate.

And by the third part, another 30 or so years down the line, the human race is mutating into a new species of simian-like albino beings with supernatural powers — they can communicate by telepathy, for instance, and fly planes using psycho-kinetic energy. It is here that Sarah’s grandnephew, Simon, makes contact with some of the creatures, whom he struggles to trust.

Thought-provoking issues

The book is thought-provoking and throws up some interesting issues about society, politics and the ways in which human behaviour and biology dictates who survives and who does not. I’m not sure it’s scientifically correct though — how, for instance, would albinos be better able to cope with a depleted ozone layer than a normal white-skinned person? Surely the lack of pigment in their skin would subject them to terrible sunburn?

That minor quibble aside, I found the book an engaging, albeit gloomy, read. The characters are a bit two-dimensional, but the dilemmas they find themselves in seem believable and anxiety-inducing. There was never a point where I thought, this is ridiculous.

There are some agendas at play, however. There’s a slightly religious undercurrent running throughout the story — which I did my best to ignore — but overall it seems to project a positive message: that if human beings opened their minds, were less prejudiced and less selfish, the world would be a better, more peaceful, place. My 15-year-old self would have loved that.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, holocaust, Morris Gleitzman, Penguin, Poland, Publisher, Setting

‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman

Once&Then

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 249 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Morris Gleitzman is an English-born Australian-based writer with more than 20 childrens’ books to his name. This book, packaged as an “adult edition” brings together his two Holocaust novels — Once, first published in 2005, and Then, first published in 2008 — for the first time. Fittingly, it’s released today (August 6) to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

I’ll have to admit that when this one arrived on my doorstep a month or so back I was a little skeptical: surely it was just jumping on the Holocaust bandwagon already set in place by John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (both of which I loved)? What could yet another childrens’ novel tell us about the Jewish experience during the Second World War? Hadn’t it all been said before? And why wasn’t Penguin re-issuing Esther Hautzig’s true life story The Endless Steppe instead, a book I adored when I was a pre-teen and still remember with an aching fondness?

Casting my cynicism aside and holed up in my sick bed bed, I decided to give this one a go because it probably wouldn’t tax the brain matter too much. I figured I’d probably read the first 50 pages and then make a judgement call. I got so swept up in the story about a 10-year-old Jewish orphan, Felix, and his gutsy little non-Jewish friend, Zelda, that I read the book cover-to-cover in a matter of hours. And then wished I hadn’t ploughed through it so furiously because I wanted to spend more time in the company of these wonderful, inspiring characters.

A fresh perspective on the Holocaust

The beauty of Once & Then is its ability to present the Holocaust in a fresh way — that is, from the perspective of a young boy who fails to comprehend the violence and brutality around him. Of course, Boyne does this in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, but Gleitzman tackles it from a slightly different angle: a Jewish boy who doesn’t even remotely understand that it is his very religion that puts him in danger.

Indeed, when the book opens Felix’s naivety is crystal clear: he truly believes he is only residing in a Catholic orphanage, not because his parents are dead, but because they are trying to sort out their problems as Jewish booksellers before coming back to rescue him.

There were two reasons Mum and Dad chose this orphanage, because it was the closest and because of Mother Minka’s goodness. When they were bringing me here, they told me how in all the years Mother Minka was a customer of their bookshop, back before things got difficult for Jewish booksellers, she never once criticised a single book.

His innocence is all the more apparent when you realise he’s being carrying this false hope with him for three years and eight months, and yet it remains undiminished. His only fear is that when his parents return they won’t recognise him because he’s changed so much in that time.

But the tables are turned when a group of Nazis arrive one day to burn all the Jewish books in the orphanage’s library. Felix suddenly realises that he needs to rescue his parents, not the other way around.

There’s a gang of thugs going round the country burning Jewish books. Mum and Dad, wherever in Europe they are, probably don’t even know their books are in danger.
I have to try and find Mum and Dad and tell them what’s going on.
But first I must get to the shop and hide the books.

This sets Felix off on an amazing voyage of discovery in which he escapes the orphanage and begins a new life on the run. Along the way, he collects a sidekick, a six-year-old girl, whom he rescues from a burning farm. Together Felix and Zelda form a formidable duo, a kind of brother-sister act that endures all kinds of highs and lows as they try to survive everything the Nazi regime has to throw at them.

A page-turning adventure

To supply any more detail would spoil the plot, because the enjoyment of reading Once & Then is letting the adventure unfurl page by page, and experiencing the adrenalin rushes, the shocks and the tears that this brings. There’s plenty of laughs in the book, too, a delightfully naive child-like humour that softens the blows of what would otherwise be a terribly dark and depressing story.

But the best part, especially for book lovers, is the infectious enthusiasm for storytelling that exists within Felix and his undying love for British writer Richmal Crompton and her humorous Just William stories.

I clamber over the beds and squeeze onto the floor and take a book from the shelf. Just William by Richmal Crompton. It’s still one of my favourite books in the whole world. As I open it I try not to remember Mum and Dad reading it to me.
Instead, I read a bit to myself. About William’s dog. He’s called Jumble and he’s a mixture of about a hundred different dogs and William loves him even when he pees in William’s new boots.
Mum and Dad said I can have a dog like Jumble one day.
Stop it.
Stop thinking about them.
William is training Jumble to be a pirate. That’s what I love about William. He always stays hopeful, and no matter how bad things get, no matter how much the world turns upside down, his mum and dad never die.
Not ever.
I know I should be getting back, but I can’t get up at the moment. All I can do is stay here on the floor, with Just William and Zelda’s carrot, thinking about Mum and Dad and crying.

Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,” he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

Author, Bodley Head, Book review, Children/YA, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Markus Zusak, Publisher

‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

BookThief

Fiction – hardcover; Bodley Head Children’s Books; 592 pages; 2007.

I may possibly be the last person in blogland to have read the much acclaimed The Book Thief, one of those children’s books that has crossed over into the adult market and become subject to incredible word-of-mouth marketing, helped, no doubt, by all the blog attention it got in 2006 and 2007. To be honest, I let it languish on my nightstand for 12 months, because I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. I’ve read my fair share of books about the Holocaust and wasn’t sure this one would tell me anything I didn’t already know.

But the author, Markus Zusak, has created a wholly original story. First, the narrator is death, who talks in a kind of roundabout language, part all-knowing, part creepy, part loving.

I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder: I will carry you gently away.

And second, the main character is an ordinary German girl growing up in Nazi Germany who must confront many personal difficulties and traumas during the course of the Second World War. This is not so much a book about the extermination of the Jewish race under Nazi occupation, but the ways in which many Germans went about their ordinary lives at the time and the extraordinary lengths some of them went to save their Jewish friends.

The story begins with Liesel Meminger, a traumatised nine-year-old girl. It’s 1939 and she has just witnessed the death and burial of her younger brother enroute to her new foster family in a town called Molching. During the burial Liesel picks up an object she finds in the snow — The Gravediggers Handbook — which sets up a lifelong love of books, even if she has to beg, borrow or steal them.

Her foster father, the kindly accordion-playing Hans Hubermann, teaches her how to read, and together the two of them pass many hours pouring over the pages of the gravedigger’s instruction manual. Later, when the family takes in a Jewish man, Max Vanderburg, and hides him away in their basement, Leisel shares her love of words with him, too.

Desperate for new reading material, Liesel — with the help of her blonde-headed friend Rudy — rescues a book from a Nazi book-burning pile. Later she is introduced to an amazing private library, owned by the mayor’s wife, which allows her to momentarily escape the dismal poverty of her ordinary day-to-day life.

But when the Nazis discover her foster father handing out bread to a march-through of Jews on their way to Dachau, their lives suddenly take on a more sinister, darker twist — which no amount of book thievery can alleviate. When the Allied bombs begin to fall on their street, things get even worse and death begins to close in on Liesel, her family and friends…

The Book Thief is, without a doubt, an incredibly memorable story. The narrative voice is unique, and the style, which double-backs on itself and occasionally jumps backwards and forwards in time, is interesting if somewhat confusing at times (Would kids get this? I kept asking myself). Initially the staccato rhythm of Death’s voice jarred, but I soon learnt to appreciate its whimsical charm.  However, I enjoyed the story much more when Death kept his mouth shut and simply let Liesel get on with things.

The characters are great, too. Liesel starts off as a rather weak-willed creature, too terrified to even step out of the car when she first arrives at her foster family’s home, but over the course of the war she turns into a feisty, courageous tom-boy, who isn’t scared of tackling anyone who bullies her. And her best friend Rudy, who has an obsession with Olympic athlete Jesse James, is a suitable, dare I say lovable, ally.

I was not as convinced about the foster parents who seemed a little stereotyped — the kindly, loving father; the foul-mouthed, bullish mother — but I can understand that younger readers would enjoy the “good cop, bad cop” personalities.

The Book Thief is a deeply unsettling story and a truly moving one. I teared up over so many scenes that I couldn’t bare to list them here for fear of running out of room! The ending is of the typical grab-your-tissues-and-sob-your-eyes-out ilk.

But in reading this very long book — perhaps a fraction too long (it meanders a lot in the middle) — I never once thought I was being emotionally manipulated. Zusak does a nice line in letting actions speak louder than words, so that the reader gets to join the dots rather than have every little thing spelt out for them. I like this approach, if only because he treats the children to which this book is aimed with intelligence rather than patronising or speaking down to them.

A delightfully human book, haunting, wise and joyous by turn. I don’t know why I waited so long to read it.

Author, Book review, Children/YA, Definitions, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, John Boyne, Publisher

‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne

BoyInStriped 

Fiction – paperback; Definitions; 224 pages; 2007.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is one of those commercially successful cross-over books, originally written for children but now read by adults, that has been lauded by the critics and nominated for countless awards. It even has its own wikipedia entry.

I knew little about the book when I bought it, save that it was about the Holocaust and was written by an Irishman. The blurb on the back gave even less away:

The story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is very difficult to describe. Usually we give some clues about the book on the cover, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about. If you do start to read this book, you will go on a journey with a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. (Though this isn’t a book for nine-year-olds.) And sooner or later you will arrive with Bruno at a fence. We hope you never have to cross such a fence.

Initially, I thought the book was probably too simple for my tastes and wondered whether it was worth the effort. It didn’t take long for the short, sparse sentences and the repetitive nature of some of the phrases to wear thin. But once I got past the half-way mark, I began to feel soothed by the rhythm of the writing.

I also noted that the plot was not as straightforward as I might have thought and that there were little surprises dotted along the way. Of course, the biggest surprise — nay shock — is right at the end, although I won’t give it away. Let’s just say it’s a memorable and devastating one, and if you can reach the end without a big lump forming in your throat there may just be something wrong with you.

All in all, this is a simple book about big themes, and quite unlike any other Holocaust novel I have read before. The killer punch delivered in the final pages means I will be thinking about this story in the days, months and years to come…