Tag Archive: Book review

One of the interesting things about THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky is that I can’t really talk about any one character as a stand-alone entity without considering how they relate to others.  This hasn’t been true in most of the other books I’ve analyzed.  I believe that adolescence is a time that feels so solitary that crating loner characters is almost reflexive.  We see that in SPEAK, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, INDIGARA, TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, and even THE HUNGER GAMES to a point.  Not so in PERKS.

The main character is Charlie and since I described him a little in the last post, I’m going to talk about the secondary characters first.  Patrick is Charlie’s, closest friend.  I can give a list of descriptive that would give an image of the character: friendly, loyal, gay, outrageous, intellectual, and sensitive.  However, the character really becomes round and real when we watch him relate to others.  He’s a joker around his step-sister.  He’s a sensitive romantic around the high school quarterback.  He’s an over-the-top ham when he’s playing Frank-N-Furter from THE ROCKEY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (Which, if you’ve never seen live, I highly recommend).  Furthermore, when the guy Patrick’s in love with turns on him, he has a very realistic and very painful breakdown.  I don’t know about you, but these are emotions that are very familiar to me.  And it’s not just how Patrick reacts, but it’s also the way his personality seems to shift depending on who he’s around.

On the other hand, Sam, Patrick’s step-sister and Charlie’s crush, is a stronger character.  She’s consistent no matter who she is around.  Like Patrick, I could describe her in a few words: attractive, protective, tough, and loving.  But, yet again, the author best reveals Sam through her relationships with others.  She kisses Charlie because she wants his first kiss to be from someone who loves him, even though they are not romantically involved.  She’s patient and honest with Charlie when he confesses his crush.  And when she feels that someone has been wronged–whether it’s Charlie being mistreated or Charlie doing the mistreating–she has the same outraged reaction.

Here’s something interesting: Charlie has a brother and a sister in this book and they aren’t given names.  They are solely defined by their relationships as “my brother” and “my sister”.  I usually don’t like gimmicky things like this but honestly, it’s so well done that I didn’t even notice until I did a re-read.

So that brings us to Charlie, who is like water: he fits whatever container he’s poured into.  His sister needs a shoulder to cry on?  Charlie can do that.  Sam just wants to be friends?  Charlie can do that.  Patrick needs someone to go to the gay hook-up site with him.  Charlie can do that.  The only character that notices is steadfast Sam who says at the end of the book:

You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of your own and think that counts as love.  You just can’t.  You have to do things.

She tells him to be active and the moment he does, he has a life-altering break-through.  He discovers that all of his strange little quirks–his uncontrolled crying, his obsession with gifts, and his unusual attitudes around sex–are a reaction to events from his past.  And the puzzle that is Charlie starts to make a whole lot more sense.  So much so, that it makes you want to read the book all over again.

Finally, it’s worth it to mention that this book is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Although it could have been set just about anywhere, there is one feature to Pittsburgh that Mr. Chboski used beautifully as a metaphor in the story.  As you travel to Pittsburgh from the north, it’s pretty bleak.  Then you come to the Fort Pitt Tunnels.  When you exit the tunnels, the city of Pittsburgh is right in front of you.  It’s like you’re in Oz; the world is suddenly in color again.  That’s like Charlie’s journey in this book.  It’s bleak until he bursts out of his own tunnel and then the world is in color again.  It’s pretty cool.

Clearly, I could go on and on (and on and on) about the characters in the book.  In fact I would like to because the plotting may very well have me stumped.  Let’s see what I can come up with before Friday.  Until then…have a great week.

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net


I haven’t really mentioned this on my blog, but I hate CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know.  It’s a classic.  It captures the adolescent trauma of being alienated and misunderstood.  Nonsense, I say.  Holden Caulfield was a whiner and no writer ever got so much acclaim for the portrayal of a less interesting teenager.  I have tried reading this book every five years or so since high school thinking I might grow into it.  Nope.  I still hate it.  So, when I heard that Stephen Chbosky drew from CATHER IN THE RYE as his inspiration for THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, I was all set and ready to hate that book, too.

How wrong I was.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky (shortened to “PERKS” by the students who have loved the book) was published in 1999.  Since then, it’s been on the top 10 list of most frequently challenged books by the American Library Association five times.  In Fayetteville, Arkansas it was challenged, along with 34 other books, as objectionable in an attempt to remove it from the school libraries there.  I’m not going to lie.  This book has some adult themes.  I would recommend this for the older end of young adult.  But I do recommend it.

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is told from the point of view of a character who calls himself “Charlie”.  It’s an epistolary story, told in a series of anonymous letters.  Charlie is assumed name and he makes it clear that he only knows the recipient of the letters by reputation.  And if you think this is odd, Charlie is just getting started.  PERKS is the story of Charlie’s first year of high school.  His best friend committed suicide the year before, his social group has dissolved, and he finds himself lonely and confused in this new high school setting.  The thing that makes this story so charming is that Charlie is one of the most likeable main characters I’ve ever read (I almost wrote “met” there).  He’s too smart for his own good and incredibly sensitive.  He has a strongly developed sense of honor and fair-play.  He’s the kind of kid you’d like to know.

In his loneliness, he luckily falls in with a free-thinking, drug-using, pre-college group of friends who appreciate him for the strange little guy he is.  As the school year passes he struggles with the pain and hardships he sees going on around him: his sister’s abusive relationship, his closest friend’s traumatic gay relationship, his family’s complicated problems, and the painful relationships of the girl he loves.

About ten pages into this book my heart started to literally ache for Charlie and it hasn’t stopped yet.  I was grateful that he finds friends who accept him.  It hurts me that his family doesn’t get him.  I wanted to befriend this character because I wanted to have the experience of knowing him better.  And I still sit here and wonder what I would think if I had been the recipient of those anonymous letters.

So, next time I’m going to tackle the characters and setting of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.  I’ve already told you a bit about Charlie, so I’ll probably focus on the more peripheral characters.  Each one is interesting and I can’t wait to explore this book with you!

That great image is by Filomena Scalise and I found it on freedigitalphotos.net.

A few years ago, when I decided I needed a crash course in professional writing, I started reading as many writing theory books as I could get my hands on.  There was one piece of advice that tended to get on my nerves: when you’re writing, every word is a choice.  To me, it sounded just a tad melodramatic.  I mean, really.  How many different ways can you say “It was foggy.”?

But then, I started reading more critically and realized how wrong I was.  The difference between a mundane sentence, a chilling sentence, or even a funny sentence can be the matter of a word or two.  Fog covered the city sounds pretty bland whereas Fog smothered the city is more ominous and Fog choked the city could, in the proper context, be chilling.

In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, precise word choices set the tone and build the suspense in the story.  The author continually reminds the reader of how risky it is to live in London.  Even when nothing particularly violent is happening, Mr. Wooding doesn’t let up on the tension.  Consider this sentence from chapter 11:

There was no fog tonight; the torrential downpour had torn it to tatters and it had retreated to the hollows, lurking in the thin shreds around the cold graveyards and derelict wasteground.

I had to re-read that sentence to figure out if it was describing the weather or a vicious animal attack.  By giving us a description of the weather that echoes the horror and violence of London, we are primed and ready for the attack that is going to happen in just a few pages.

Mr. Wooding also uses words in his descriptions that are reminiscent of blood and bleeding.  It really adds to the icky, ominous tone of the book.  When the author describes a character imagining a sunset, it is written:

…she’d stood and watched the last of the day bleed out of the sky….

When he describes the poorest district in London, he writes:

The city of London has a secret heart.  It is a clotted thing of crumbling stone….

When he describes one of the many disgusting monsters he writes:

…a clot of darkness that bled along the walls and path of the sewer….

I could keep going.  The bloody reminders are everywhere.  At every opportunity, Mr. Wooding makes a descriptive choice to have everything–the weather, the buildings, even the darkness–shadow the violence and gore in the city.  And it works.  The tone of this book is dark, dark, dark.

I’d also like to touch on a point that I’ve mentioned more than once: Mr. wooding dedicates a huge amount of his writing space to description.  And, while I stand by my assessment in earlier posts that it really slows the pace, it’s also another choice that I believe contributes to the tone of the story.  The story is set in alternate-history, Victorian-era London.  Writers of this time include Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and the Bronte sisters.  These are not sparse writers.  Charles Dickens spends more than a page at the beginning of A TALE OF TWO CITIES telling the reader that the story takes place in a time like any other time.  So, in terms of the style of the day, Mr. Wooding’s book is actually pretty reserved.

So, that’s THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  This was my first steampunk and I hope I find more in the same genre that are just as enjoyable.  I’ll see you on Friday.

The scaaaary artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

I know it sounds strange, but I usually don’t try to analyze the title of a book until I’m finished reading it.  Then, knowing how the book begins, proceeds, and ends, I try to determine if I like the choice in title.  For example, THE HUNGER GAMES worked for me.  The whole book is about these gladiatorial survivor games, so the title isn’t misleading.  Plus, it’s catchy enough to snag my interest if I don’t have any prior knowledge of the book.  THE GRAVEYARD BOOK worked for me too.  Like I said in my posts when I analyzed this book, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK feels like a string of individual stories about a boy who lives in a graveyard.  The title is very general and in this context, it works.

I’m bringing this up because I think that the title of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding does the book a disservice.  First of all, Alaizabel isn’t really haunted; she’s possessed.  In fact, because Alaizabel is stronger than the spirit within her, it’s an unsuccessful possession.  Wouldn’t that have been a cool title?  THE FAILED POSSESSION OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.

However, my objection to the title isn’t because it could have been cooler or because it isn’t completely accurate.  I object to this title because it set up false expectations for the plotting of this book.  After reading the title, I believed that the thrust of the story was going to be about the supernatural threat to the heroine and how she ended up haunted.  It turned out that Alaizabel’s troubles only spanned about half of the book.  The real plot was about a secret Fraternity in London and their goal to bring about the apocalypse.

I will make this confession:  this book didn’t draw me along and make me need to know the ending.  I kept reading because of the great individual scenes (I think I mentioned a fantastic scene between Alaizabel and the serial killer, Stitch-face.  There’s also a pretty exciting knife fight.) and the super/icky/cool monsters.  The imagery for the grand finale of the book was spectacular.  In addition, when wych-kin overrun London, there are a series of short scenes that gave me chills.  But these events are secondary to the main plot line, which was not particularly surprising or revealing.  Like the characters, where the lead players were a bit of a snore, the primary plot of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY was borderline predictable.  On the other hand, the side stories, like the serial killer Stitch-face and the London citizens who are victims of the wych-kin, are chocolate-covered deliciousness.

That’s my take on the plotting for THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY.  Even though I feel like this book is a little slow and the plot isn’t driving, I still made it to the end without any trouble.  A big reason for that was the writing style…which I will tackle on Monday.  Have a wonderful weekend!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

You might have already noticed my fondness for opening lines.  According to Mary Kole, this is a writer’s prime real estate.  In THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (HAC) by Chris Wooding, the opening line establishes the setting.  The first sentence of HAC is:

The airship lumbered low overhead, its long, lined belly a dull smear of silvery light in the fog as it reflected the gas lamps of the city beneath.

Gas lamps AND airships.  This tells me that we must be set somewhere at the turn of the century.  As we progress through the first two paragraphs, Mr. Wooding establishes that this is London, the streets are cobbled rather than paved, and that horse-drawn carriages are the primary mode of travel.  But the history isn’t correct.  In this version of world events, the “Prussians” strategically place their silent, and secret, airships over London one night and bomb the city.  The destruction is immense and the British spirit is broken.  Parts of the city have gone almost feral; wild wolves roam the streets and hoards of demonic monsters terrorize the people.  This is one bleak city.

I don’t mind admitting that I loved the setting of HAC.  It is a familiar place–London–with very unfamiliar qualities.  Like the packs of wolves.  The juxtaposition was delicious and created a strong mental picture of this world.  The drawback?  HAC has a pretty slow pace.  If you’re familiar with H.P. Lovecraft you’ve already had a taste of this style.  When it doesn’t work, the story becomes a plodding tar pit.  Fortunately Mr. Wooding’s writing is engaging enough to make it work.

The main characters of HAC are Thaniel and Alaizabel.  They’re very familiar archetypes.  He is a gifted wych-hunter–young, handsome, and stubbornly single.  She is the damsel in distress–beautiful, hunted, and alone in the world.  In my opinion, that’s all you need to know about Thaniel and Alaizibel.  Neither one did much of anything that shocked me.

But that’s OK because Mr. Wooding has an absolute talent for creating secondary characters.  At the same time that wych-kin terrorizes the people of London, there’s also a serial killer on the loose.  His name is Stitch-face because of the stitched-together mask he wears when he kills.  Yes…this feels like it draws strongly from the Jack the Ripper killings.  Alaizabel has a hair-raising scene with Stitch-face and, crazy as this sounds, I found myself enjoying his personality.

There’s also the strange, supernatural Devil-boy Jack.  His eyes are sewn shut, but he can see the future and ward off wych-kin like a professional.  Devil-boy Jack has all the answers because he knows what’s going to happen.  Of course, he can’t tell you anything useful because it might throw things off course.  You gotta love characters like that.

And finally, there’s the scrappy, Captain Jack-like Lord Crott.  He’s a Fagan-style character with a band of merry beggars. They go out and get the money and Lord Crott makes sure that they are fed and protected.  People in need of information, visit Lord Crott.  And our sweet amnesiac Alaizabel is in desperate need of information.

That doesn’t even touch upon the gooey, creepy population of wych-kin.  Not only are the monsters the stuff of twisted fairy-tales, Mr. Wooding gives them the full force of his descriptive abilities.  He also gives them really awesome names like Cradlejack (Kidnaps babies), Rawhead (Appears when you look over your shoulder three times), and ghasts (Hides in children’s tombs).  If you like horror because of the monsters, this book is for you.

So that’s a few of the characters and the setting of THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY by Chris Wooding.  Honestly, there’s a whole cast that I haven’t mentioned.  This book is populated.  However, because Mr. Wooding paints such a vivid picture of each character, I didn’t get confused as the story progressed.  That is no easy feat!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (seriously, this artist makes constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  LOVE it.) and I found it on flickr.

I was doing a little research on my next book analysis subject, THE HAUNTING OF ALAIZABEL CRAY (which I am going to abbreviate HAC) by Chris Wooding.  Imagine my surprise when I found out it was categorized as “steampunk”.  I’ve heard the term but I didn’t know what it meant and I haven’t ever read anything in this genre until now.

What is Steampunk? Steampunk is a broad description for books set during the 1800’s where technology is more advanced than it would have been at that time.  It’s an alternate past scenario. It gives Victorian culture zeppelins or time machines.  Steampunk is a genre that still in the process of defining itself.  Here’s a couple of links if you would like to read more about steampunk:

  • A blog that has a nice definition and some interesting pictures.
  • The wiki definition (And do have a look at the discussion section.  I love a good genre debate!)
  • Steampunk has a convention and I understand there are tea parties!

In addition to falling under the steampunk umbrella, HAC by Chris Wooding actually has a bit of the fantasy/horror element as well along with a touch of romance.  When writers query their books to agents, one of the most common complaints I’ve heard is that the author doesn’t know how to label the genre of the book.  Here’s a prime example that cross-genre books do get published.

HAC was published in 2001 to great reviews and won a Nestle Smarties Book Prize among other awards.  There’s some wonderful information about the book on Mr. Wooding’s site.  In his description about writing this book, he says that he was living in London, hating it, and reading a bunch of H.P. Lovecraft. It really, really shows.

HAC is set in Victorian Era London.  The Prussians bombed the city thirty years earlier and out of the wreckage came the wych-kin.  They are these gross, supernatural nightmare creatures that haunt the city after dark.  Wych-kin have sprung up in all the heavily populated areas all over the world.  Only wych-hunters can find and battle the dangerous wych-kin.  Thaniel, a seventeen year old wych-hunter, and his mentor Cathaline discover a young woman during one of their patrols around the city.  The young woman is Alaizabel Cray.  She can remember nothing about her life and is possessed by the spirit of an evil being named Thatch.  As Thaniel and Cathaline unravel the secrets of Alaizabel’s past, they discover that she is hunted by a secret organization, called the Fraternity.  If the Fraternity finds Alaizabel, they will use Thatch to bring about the end of the world.

HAC reminded me a lot of H.P. Lovecraft.  It had kind of a plodding pace and was heavy on the description.  But the monsters were terrifying, the plot was intriguing, the characters were memorable, and the ending was larger than life.

So, next time I’m going to tackle the characters and setting.  This is another story where the setting is so essential to the plot that it’s almost a character, too.  In addition, the characters straddle the line between the modern and the Victorian.  When it works well, the juxtaposition can be almost dizzying.  I’m looking forward to trying to figure out how steampunk ticks!

The super-creepy artwork is by Shain Erin (Seriously, this artist constructs really messed-up dolls that are icky and awesome.  If this sounds like something you would like, you should check it out!) and I found it on flickr.

I enjoy different brands of writing style for different reasons.  When I’m reading an adventure story, like SHIPBREAKER, I want the prose to be easy to read.  Descriptive elements are fine but don’t give me too much to ponder.  You’ll lose the adventure-style pacing.  At the same time, I’m a writer so I love words.  I read Jane Austen aloud because I love the way she sounds.  Her books are social satire so stopping to think about phrasing and meaning doesn’t take away from the story-telling at all.

In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, the writing style is almost literary.  I knew this was a holocaust story and I knew that it was categorized as young adult so I was a little bit surprised.  But as I read on, I think I understood what Mr. Zusak was doing.  Again, this is about the point of view character.  Death.  By filling the prose with figures of speech, Mr. Zusak manages to maintain a surreal, water-color feel around the book.  Even though the setting is based on historical Germany, even though there’s nothing supernatural about the story, there’s still a dreamlike quality, thanks to the writing style.  Consider this bit of storytelling from Death’s point of view:

The last time I saw her was red.  The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.  In some places, it was burned.  There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness.

Earlier kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages.  When I arrived, I could still hear the echoes.  The feet tapping the road.  The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.

What an image!  A red soup sky!  What does it mean?  I have no idea but I have a strong mental picture of something I’ve never seen. And since I’ve already confessed that my mind’s eye needs glasses, giving me a great visual is quite an accomplishment.  And smiles like salt.  Not sweet.  Easily dissolving.  So few words but with a ton of meaning.

At the end of my edition of THE BOOK THIEF, there’s “A conversation with Markus Zusak”.  In it, he states that he likes the idea that every page of a book can have a gem on it.  If he doesn’t manage to do just that, he comes pretty close.  Some of my favorites?

  • …the minutes soaked by.
  • Frau Diller was a sharp-edged woman….
  • If they killed him tonight, at least he would die alive.
  • His eyes were the color of agony….

As you can see, Mr. Zusak uses words in a way that almost makes literal sense.  You can imagine the “color of agony” even if agony isn’t a color.  You can sense how minutes might “soak by” even if they aren’t liquid.  We’ve all known someone who was “sharp-edged”.  They are surprising turns of phrase, but they work nonetheless.

I also think that Death’s voice is a preview of the adult Liesel.  Her story covers her life from age nine to fourteen.  During this time she learns how to read and write.  It would be hard to have a literary style from Liesel’s point of view because she is still building her vocabulary.  However, about halfway through the book, the Jewish boy living in her basement asks about the weather.  Liesel answers:

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….

There’s a literary bent in the way Liesel thinks that’s very similar to Death’s.  And lest you think that Markus Zusak only has one voice, the dialog is a whole other animal.  It’s earthy (to be kind).  There’s much swearing and name-calling in German.  Kids sound like kids.  Adults sound like adults.  It’s only through the Death narration that we get this delicious literary quality that I enjoyed so much.

So, that’s THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak.  I enjoyed this book.  There’s so much to discuss I could probably write another week worth of posts about it.  But I won’t; I’ll move on to something else and leave you to enjoy this gem on your own.

I hope everyone has had a great Monday and I’ll see you Wednesday.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

So here’s the thing about THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak:

You know how it’s going to end.

I don’t mean that in a general It’s-World-War-II-We-All-Know-How-It-Ends kind of way.  I mean it very literally.  Before we get the setting of Himmel street, before we know what year it is, before we even know Liesel’s name, death tells us how the book is going to end.  Page twelve through fifteen is the closing scene.  Of course you get an emotionally raw, extended version from page 529-539, but it isn’t a shock; you know it’s coming.  No tension.  No suspense.  There it is.

So, why would Mr. Zusak do this?  I think the answer is simple.  He does this because this is how he believes that Death would tell a story.  In fact, Death spells it out for you about halfway through the book

Of course, I’m being rude.  I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it.  I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery.  Mystery bores me.  It chores me.  I know what happens and so do you.  It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

Rare is the day that you get a good self-analysis by an author about his own writing through one of his own characters.  But it’s all too true.  As a writer, you’re told to make sure the stakes and tension are high.  What’s higher than putting someone in a life and death situation and spinning the wheel of Fate?  In THE BOOK THIEF, life and death is part of the setting.  Nazi Germany was a dangerous place.  But instead of using that, Death is going to tell you straight up who dies.  He even gives you a little countdown.

If all that’s true, then what made me keep turning the pages?  As Death tells us, it’s the machinations–it’s life and living it–that is the interesting part. There’s daily drama that’s compelling enough.  Where will Liesel get her next book?  Will she keep having nightmares about the death of her brother?  Will she finally kiss Rudy (although Death spoils that one for us too)?  What will happen to the Jewish boy they have hidden in the basement? How will life change when the war really comes to Munich?  The details of life are compelling enough to pull a reader through a book without needing anything more.

I’m not saying that Death doesn’t drop a few breadcrumbs.  He indicates when Liesel is going to steal another book and where she might go to get it.  He refers to something as “The Jesse Owens Incident” and lets you wait a few chapters before you get the rest of the story.  He calls Liesel “The Heavyweight Champion of the Schoolyard” and then spins out the story after he has your interest.  It’s an interesting device actually. I learned that if you hint at an incident and make sure you do it with a good hook, your reader will probably hang out to get the whole story.  In THE BOOK THIEF, it works well more than once.

Obviously, there’s more to the plotting than what I’ve presented here.  That was also true of the characters and setting and I suspect it’s going to also be true when I play with the writing style in the next post.  And that’s one of the delights of this book. It’s one of those books that you can re-read, even if you’re not a re-reader, and find something new to analyze, discuss, or pick at.

Until Monday…I hope everyone has a good weekend!

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

Nazi Germany.  It’s so familiar; it almost feels like a cliché.  In THE BOOK THIEF we see something new in Hitler’s Germany.  And I think that’s  because Markus Zusak thinks small.

The setting for THE BOOK THIEF is Molching, Germany, a small, fictional town outside of Munich.  Within the small town setting, Mr. Zusak focuses on Himmel street.  By page fifty of THE BOOK THIEF, we get a roll-call of the people of Himmel street.  Liesel and her foster parents, the Hubermanns; Frau Holtzapfel and her decade-long grudge against Mrs. Hubermann; Ruby Steiner, Liesel’s best friend; Frau Diller, the loyal Nazi, Tommy Miller, a twitchy, sweet misfit; and Pfiffikus, the man who whistles and swears too much.  It’s a microcosm of the war.  One loyal to Hitler (Diller), one defiant (Liesel’s foster father), and everyone else just trying to survive.  And it’s few enough characters that in a five-hundred and fifty page book, you can get to know each one pretty well.

Using such a small town setting was a brilliant choice.  In ways, it felt almost like Mayberry or Maycomb, Alabama.  I know this sounds crazy: Liesel’s foster mother is vicious with the wooden spoon, bullies grasp for power among the small-town childhood gangs, and starving Jews are marched through their town on the way to Dachau.  Still, at the same time, the children played ball games in the street and got into mischief (or even a little trouble).  There’s a little light romance.  If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you could almost envision the kids.  At the same time, this horrible war and genocide is happening.  Can you feel my unease at the two conflicting images?  It’s boggling.

Here’s another place where thinking small really worked.  There was really only one Jewish person in THE BOOK THIEF.  Although there are nameless lines of Jewish people marching to Dachau, only Max Vandenburg, the man hidden in Liesel’s basement, represents the Jewish point of view.  Just one name and voice for the millions killed during the Holocaust.  And, man, is it effective.  You feel his guilt and fear and anger.  He daydreams about having a fist-fight with Hitler.  He is a stark representation of the rage that German-Jewish population must have felt and their confusion as to where to focus their anger.

Finally, thinking small leads us to Liesel and Rudy, the two protagonists of this story.  There’s a real advantage in telling the story from the most powerless position–that of children.  Liesel and Rudy each have their own small rebellions–Rudy’s very non-PC attachment to Olympic hero Jessie Owens and Liesel’s propensity to steal books.  But, for the most part, they have very little control over their own destiny.  Liesel is forced to leave her mother to live with her foster parents. They both go to Hitler Youth.  And yet, they each have more freedom than Max.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Death as the point of view character.  I thought this was amazing.  It could have been so cheesy but not it Mr. Zusak’s hands.  Death is a character bothered and intrigued by humanity.  He describes war as an over-demanding boss, always requiring more.  And he’s funny.  Some of the commentary actually had me snickering because of the dry, black wit.

The characters are so well put together, that I could probably spend a blog post on each one.  Honestly, the character development in Liesel from the time she comes to Himmel Street to the end of the book is so dramatic that you feel like you’re watching her mature.  Rudy’s arc isn’t quite so striking, but he’s still a well-rounded character with some beautiful depth.  Frau and Herr Hubermann, Liesel’s foster parents, deserve a mention but I don’t know where to start.  If I had to draw a comparison, I would use Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.  And, yes, it sounds odd to me too.

So next time, I’m going to tackle the plotting.  What keeps me turning the pages in THE BOOK THIEF?  Because truth be known, I finished the book in under twenty four hours.  Until next time.

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.

I’m in love.

My mother introduced us.

This week, my Mother sent me THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak (Thanks Mom!).  I couldn’t wait to blog about it.  I’m going to have to watch my blog post lengths because there’s so much to talk about.  My mother read THE BOOK THIEF as part of her book club and told me that everyone had something good to say about it.  I understand why.  Realistic characters, some of which I would love to know; a beautiful, almost poetic writing style; and a compelling plot.  This book has it all.

THE BOOK THIEF isn’t Markus Zusak’s debut novel; he has three previous novels.  The most notable is I AM THE MESSENGER, the winner of the Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature.  THE BOOK THIEF was published in 2005 and has won a variety of awards as well, including the Printz Honor and Publisher’s Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year.  It’s definitely worth your time to check out his website.  There, he talks a little bit about his writing routines and admits that it took him seven years to publish a book (Oh, thank you for that little bit of hope, Mr. Zusak!).  Also, I wanted to link you to my favorite version of the cover art because I just thought it was so cool.  By the way, that’s not the cover art above–just an image I liked. 🙂

THE BOOK THIEF is the story of a girl named Liesel.  After her mother is accused of Communism in Nazi Germany, she and her brother are shipped to couple in a small town outside of Munich.  Sadly, her brother dies on train ride to their new home.  While he’s being buried, two things happen: Liesel steals a book called “The Gravedigger’s Handbook” and she’s catches the interest of Death, himself.  The rest of the book follows the next four years of Liesel’s life as she struggles to learn how to read, to make sense of the kindness and unkindness of humanity, and survive in the throes of World War II era Germany.

Two things separate this book from other historical fictions of Nazi Germany.  First, this story is about a lower middle class German family.  Many of the stories I’ve read or seen from this era are about Jewish families or take place in concentration camps.  By placing the story in a non-Jewish German family, it really gives the reader a unique viewpoint.  Second, the point of view character in this book is Death.  It really, really worked.  Death was a weary, curious, sympathetic character, completely confused by humanity.  I thought it was a very interesting choice.

You might have noticed that the subject matter in this book is pretty heavy, even though it is classified as young adult.  I think this book is for the mature young adult reader.  THE BOOK THIEF is classified as young adult for some of the same reasons that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD might get the same designation if it was published today.  They both have a protagonist in the tween to teen age range.  However, the themes–death, guilt, doing the right thing even when it’s the hard thing–are mature.  I think this could be enjoyed by any adult reader and might not be the right choice to woo a reluctant reader.

Like I said above, I’m really looking forward to writing the blogs about this book.  Like usual, my next post will discuss characters and setting, the following one looks at plotting, then my last one for this book will be about Mr. Zusak’s writing style. I’ll see you Wednesday!

The gorgeous photo is by szlea and I found it on flickr.