Sunday, November 24, 2013

Revisiting The Book Thief (plus, a movie review)

"It's just a small story really, about, among other things:
*A girl
*Some words
*An accordionist
*Some fanatical Germans
*A Jewish fist fighter
*And quite a lot of thievery"

I usually mention The Book Thief when asked to list my favorite books. I don't remember where I heard about the book or why I picked it up, but I read it for the first time in 2009. And while I always mentioned it as a favorite, I knew I had forgotten many of the details. With the movie coming out, I decided to reread the book. Thankfully, the book was just as good as I remembered.

The Book Thief depicts daily life in Nazi Germany through the eyes of Liesel Meminger. Liesel and her brother are given up by their family (who are, it is implied, being persecuted by the Nazis for being communists) into the care of a foster family. However, Liesel's brother dies on the train journey and is buried quickly in a haphazard ceremony beside the tracks. As the unexpected funeral finishes, Liesel picks up a book that has fallen out of one of the grave digger's pockets and keeps it for herself. This is her first act of book thievery.

Liesel's new family consists of Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who struggle to make ends meet due to Hans's troubled standing with the local Nazi Party. Liesel also befriends the boy next door, Rudy Steiner, a rather incorrigible flirt who dreams of running like Jesse Owens.

When Liesel starts school, it becomes quickly apparent that she doesn't know how to read. When Hans discovers Liesel's stolen book, which turns out to be The Grave Digger's Handbook, he and Liesel begin middle-of-the-night reading lessons using the book, despite the fact that Hans is not a strong reader himself. The father/daughter relationship between Hans and Liesel is one of my favorite parts of the book (and the movie).

Midnight Reading Lessons with Liesel and Hans
Midnight Reading Lessons with Liesel and Hans (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for DCP)

When World War II begins, life at the Hubermann's becomes more challenging. Rudy and Liesel are required to attend Hitler Youth meetings. Food becomes more scarce. Rosa, who earns money doing washing for others, begins to lose clients. Liesel steals another book from a Nazi-sponsored book burning, and befriends the mayor's wife, who lets her read from her library. The constant threat of bombing raids becomes a fact of life. And most importantly, the Hubermanns take in and hide Max, the son of a Jewish man who saved Hans's life in WWI, who becomes a sort-of brother to Liesel.

While the story and characters of The Book Thief alone are wonderful (don't worry, more book thievery happens), what makes the story unique is the narrator. The entire book is narrated by Death. Yes, Death. Death rather resignedly travels the world collecting the souls of the dying and trying not to pay attention to the reactions of those left behind. As the narrator, Death is very present in the story, inserting rather philosophical asides and comments. Also, Death does not believe in a no spoiler policy, and tells you bits (tragic bits) about how the story will end.

In my experience, Death as the narrator either works really well for readers, or comes off as gimmicky and disjointing for others. I personally love what Zusak did with the narration. If you're curious about it, Death is also in the movie, and there is a short clip of him that can be found here (sorry, it won't let me embed it for you):

Speaking of the movie, I got to attend an advance screening just over a week ago. They are slowly releasing the movie to more and more theaters, so keep an eye out for it over the next few weeks. I thought the movie was wonderful.

Geoffrey Rush plays Hans Hubermann alongside a new, young actress, Sophie Nelisse, who plays Liesel. Rush makes a perfect Hans--quiet, understanding, thoughtful, honest, with a touch of humor and playfulness, and his relationship with Liesel in the movie feels very real. Rudy, Max, and Rosa are all very well-acted as well. Rudy is absolutely adorable, and has the same energy he has in the book. Watching the friendship grow between Liesel and Max actually drew out the similarities in their stories in a way that I never pulled out from the books before. And it would have been especially easy to flatten Rosa's character, but Emily Watson is wonderful. The movie is also visually rich and beautiful, as is the soundtrack (John Williams). 

It's been awhile, but I'm still thinking about the movie. It's a bit slow-moving and they've had to cut out a good bit of the book. However, The Book Thief really captures the spirit of the book, and the relationships between all the characters. Just like the book, the movie had me in tears. I did manage not to sob in the theater, though, which I feel is a great accomplishment.

I'd definitely read the book first, if you are able (I'm looking at you, Zelda). But if not, The Book Thief also makes a stunning movie.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I hunt (and read) killer books

I'm finally back to serial killer and death books. It's been so long and I've missed them. I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga tells the story of Jazz (short for Jasper). A body was discovered in a field just outside of town and Jazz just had to take a look. He makes a habit out of spying on the cops when he hears interesting calls over the police scanner, but this one is different. When he sees one of the policeman hold up an evidence bag containing a single severed finger, Jazz knows that there's a serial killer in town. You see, Jazz is the son of the world most notorious serial killer, Billy Dent, who over the course of his career killed 124 people. This type of death in small Lobo's Nod was sure to cast suspicion on Jazz.

Jazz was afraid of two things in the world, and two things only. One of them was that people thought that his upbringing meant that he was cursed by nature, nurture, and predestination to be a serial killer like his father. The second thing . . . was that they were right.

To the outside world Jazz seems "impressively well adjusted." He has a girlfriend, Connie, and a best friend who's been with him for years, the incredibly loyal hemophiliac Howie. But on the inside Jazz knows he's not normal. He constantly has to remind himself that "People matter. People are real. People matter."

He doesn't want to turn out like Dear Old Dad, but knows that he's irrevocably scarred for life from his experiences from his childhood. His father started coaching him on the basics of how to be a functioning sociopath at a young age. Jasper has also been having terrifying dreams where he can feel himself cutting into human flesh hearing his father say, "Nice job, son. Nice good cut. It's just like chicken." And Jazz can't figure out if it's just a dream or a repressed memory seeing how no one knows what happened to his mother.

Since Jazz knows so much about murder and he wants to prove his innocence (to himself and others), he volunteers his services to the local police.  After all, who better to find a killer than a killer?

As the murders continue, Jazz is the first to recognize the victims as copies of his father's first murders. Someone is trying to recreate Billy Dent's murder spree. As the town is going through the motions by the book, which takes time. Jazz takes it upon himself to try to find the killer, but as he starts examining clues and the deaths more closely he starts losing touch with himself and fears that the killings are all because of him.

Who is the murderer: The police chief who had a mental breakdown after catching Jazz's father? The reporter who would do anything to get back in the spotlight? The new detective who just happens to be from the same town as the first victim?
And what will become of Jazz? Can he hold it together or is he destined to become his father?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pretty in Pink meets Pride and Prejudice?

For as long as she can remember, the only thing Caymen has known about the rich is that they can’t be trusted. Her mother got pregnant with Caymen when she was very young and was disowned by her parents and abandoned by the father, who coincidentally was very rich. As a result, Caymen and her mom eke out a meager existence by running a shop that sells porcelain dolls and living in the small upstairs apartment. When one of their store’s patrons sends her grandson in to pick up a doll she had ordered, Caymen’s first instinct is to write him off as a snobby rich-boy, but there’s something about him that makes her want to give him a second chance, or a third, or as many as he wants. Even though everything from her past tells her that he’ll use her and run away when she gets bored, Xander genuinely seems to like her and they start hanging out. They both feel imprisoned by their families expectations, so rather than have dates, they take turns hosting career counseling sessions where they try different activities to discover what it is they truly love. This is adorable as all get out, but leaves Caymen confused to what exactly their relationship is. Caymen's mother and best friend are both pushing her towards Mason, a lead singer of a band who on paper seems like a much better fit for her. And then there’s Xander who keeps showing up on the cover of Star magazine with a movie star girlfriend. It seems like everything is going wrong for Xander and Caymen, but if they're so wrong for each other why is Caymen happier when she’s with him? Happier than she’s ever been.

Everywhere I turn, I see The Distance Between Us described as Pretty in Pink meets Pride and Prejudice, which maybe...? I’ve never seen Pretty in Pink, but I assume from movie posters that poor girl Molly Ringwald falls for rich boy Andrew McCarthy, who seems like a major douche. I have however read Pride and Prejudice and honestly didn't see much resemblance. This book seemed like a fairly normal story of poor girl and rich boy hit it off and was fairly fluffy, but enjoyable. The relationship between Caymen and Xander is perfectly executed with plenty of swoony bits, but there were times where I wished Caymen would just ask Xander what was going on in his head or let him know what was going on with her. I found it to be typical teen fair, but a welcome one. This would be a wonderful beach book, of course now we're on the verge of winter. Mexico here I come!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Different Girl

I was excited for this one. It has a really great cover and an interesting premise. I just felt like this was going no where. You spend time with your four main girls that are identical except for their hair color. We have Veronika, Isobel, Caroline and Eleanor. Enter May, our "different" girl, survivor of a ship wreck. Nothing really happened. The book isn't very long, only 240 pages, but nothing actually happened. The four identical girls wander around the island with Irene, the lady that teaches them things and then we have Robbert that created them and keeps them in working order.

The girls wander and look for things. Then they get in a group and talk about what they looked at. Irene poses questions to them to get them to do different things and then we start all over again. Then May shows up and we continue this trend but every once in a while we have to realize that May is in a new world and needs to go sulk.

Commence the wandering! What's this? We have stumbled upon a secret on the island? It was never explained WHY the girls were built. Why do you they live on this island? What is the point of any of it? Sure, people don't want cyborgs and that is the why for living on the island but not why they exist in general. How did the four girls come Irene and Robbert? What is the purpose of May? Irene was already trying to get the girls to think beyond what they "know" and Caroline is the only one that dreams but why does it matter? I just needed more information in general.

This could have been really cool and instead I was just left feeling empty toward the book and the characters. I also got the impression that Irene and Robbert were kind of creepy but then that went no where. Which was a little disappointing, no diabolical plans or anything?

I gave this 1/5 stars.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Theory of Everything

I saw this book while shelving and was drawn to it because of the blue cover and the trees in the letters of the title. I flipped to the back and without reading the premise of the book, I knew I had to check out. On the back cover is a chart. A CHART! Listing percentages of things in the book. I was sold. 5% possum? Done. I had to see where the possum fits in. It already seemed like my kind of humor and it was a chart!

The premise of the book sounds like a sad one. Our main character, Sarah, lost her friend in a tragic accident and is still not over it. Her family, friends and boyfriend aren't sure how to help her and are frankly getting a little upset with her seeming lack of ability to move on. Add to this a Christmas tree farm, some snarky behavior, and a main character that felt like she could be my best friend, and I was so excited to read this. I was not let down.

Sarah is awesome. I loved that while she was being a bit snarky and bitchy, even she was getting fed up with her own behavior. She wanted to change but couldn't figure out how and I can relate to feeling unsure of how to change yourself. I loved that she would say something and instantly in her head, "Why can't you just be normal?! Why are you like this?" I couldn't put this down because I had to see what happened in her life.

I was a little bummed out by the ending and after reading many other reviews, I was not alone. I won't give away any information, but I felt like one aspect seemed a bit out of character and there could have been more resolution. I wanted this to have the bow tie ending where everything was in its final place and that was that.

I need to request the other book by this author and see if I love it just as much. I will be on the lookout for future books as well!

5/5 stars! I loved this one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bellman & Black

'Bellman & Black' is the new novel by Diane Setterfield, author of 'The Thirteenth Tale'. The story opens with the incident around which the entire plots twists. While his three friends watch, William Bellman makes a perfect shot with his catapult, striking and killing a rook in a faraway tree. While his friends are impressed, the day is mostly forgotten and William grows. William's work ethic, problem-solving attitude, people skills, and ability to learn things quickly serves him well, and he becomes an extraordinarily successful businessman and industrialist. He also falls in love and has a family.

However, as his star rises, there always seems to be a rook around. People around him start dying, and at all the funerals Bellman attends, there is a strange man in black watching. Eventually, tragedy strikes closer to home, and Bellman makes a deal with 'Black'. Professionally, his success continues, but things are never the same after that.

The official blurb for the book calls 'Bellman & Black' a "heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line." While the book was well-written, it was less eerie than I wanted. I expected an atmospheric book, with a slightly gothic feel (along the lines of Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Erin Morgenstern). I did not feel any "ratcheting tension" at all. The story was slow-moving and quotidian. Setterfield scattered references to rooks in the background of Bellman's life, watching him, but it was obvious from the beginning where the story was going. There was no sense of mystery, and the supernatural was barely present.

'Bellman & Black' was very character-driven, particularly by the main character, William Bellman. I found Will a bit dull. Most of the book was devoted to his business decisions--becoming head of the mill, arranging for food for his workers, constructing his mourning emporium, doing paperwork, setting business goals. There was too much detail about his work life, and he didn't have an interesting character to carry the business details.

Yet, I loved the last 20 pages. In the last 20 pages, the atmosphere, the emotion, the mystery that was missing for the book finally appeared. Had the entire book been written like the end, it would have lived up to its description. In fact, I think 'Bellman & Black' might have worked better as a short story or novella.

I've only heard wonderful things about Setterfield's first book, 'The Thirteenth Tale,' and I still intend to go back and read it someday. 'Bellman & Black' might be a good book for people who like fantasy or supernatural without a lot of gothic embellishment and flowery language. People interested slow-growing family dramas may also be interested as well.

2.5 stars.

I received an ARC of Bellman & Black through NetGalley. Bellman & Black will be released on November 5th, 2013.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Pretty Girl-13

Hmm....I really expected to like this more. I know that may sound....weird (for lack of a better word) when thinking about the subject of the book but it could have been written so well. I know that this book is out there to educate kidnappings/sexual abuse that in the end come to happier conclusions (Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, etc.) but there were no surprises here. I found myself thinking, "was that supposed to be a surprise?" "Really? That's the "twist"?" and I guess I'm not sure what I fully expected from this book. It did it's job in introducing the world to a character that you could almost relate to. I thought some of the plot lines were a little weird. I really loved the idea of exploring Disassociative Identity Disorder and the reality of being in a situation you are beyond dealing with and your body basically taking over. But, and this is a big one, this could have been MUCH better. I applaud the author for taking a really hard subject and giving it a voice. Not often in literature for teens do certain sort of taboo subjects come up.

Angie, our main character, goes camping and the suddenly finds herself back on the street she lives on. She goes home and her parents are elated to see her. She doesn't understand that three years have passed because she doesn't remember them. Her alternate personalities are basically shielding her from what has occurred so the last thing she remembers is leaving to go camping and then winds up home instead.

I found I couldn't relate to Angie as a person. The story felt like a story and not a world that I could try to understand and join. It lacked some sort of emotion for me that would have made it seem more realistic or at least made the characters more realistic. I also had a hard time accepting her "alters" as real characters. The interactions with them were strange and kind of detracted from the story a bit for me.

I wouldn't say I don't recommend that you read this, just that it really wasn't for me. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Flavia, Flavia, Flavia

Cozy murder mysteries usually aren't my genre, but I absolutely adore the Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is a precocious, eccentric eleven year old growing up in 1950s England. Her greatest passions in life are studying chemistry, particularly poisons, and devising ways to poison her older sisters--Feely (Ophelia) and Daffy (Daphne). Being unusually bright, she has a great talent for worming her way into other people's business, exasperating the local Inspector, and solving murders while bicycling around on a bike she has christened Gladys.

I love her.

The book trailer above captures Flavia rather well, but here are a few more quotes from the first book.

Flavia, on her future book:
“If there is a thing I truly despise, it is being addressed as "dearie." When I write my magnum opus, A Treatise Upon All Poison, and come to "Cyanide," I am going to put under "Uses" the phrase "Particularly efficacious in the cure of those who call one 'Dearie.”
Flavia, on being the youngest daughter:
“It is not unknown for fathers with a brace of daughters to reel off their names in order of birth when summoning the youngest, and I had long ago become accustomed to being called 'Ophelia Daphne Flavia, damn it.”
 (Having grown up in a similar "brace of daughters," I can tell you that the dynamics among the sisters are spot on and hilarious in these books.)
Flavia, on self defense:
“I remembered a piece of sisterly advice, which Feely once gave Daffy and me: "If ever you're accosted by a man," she'd said, "kick him in the Casanovas and run like blue blazes!" 
Although it had sounded at the time like a useful bit of intelligence, the only problem was that I didn't know where the Casanovas were located.

I'd have to think of something else.”
The series so far consists of:
1. Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
2. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag
3. A Red Herring Without Mustard
4. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows 
5. Speaking From Among the Bones
6. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (January 2014)

The books are quick reads, but are also wonderful to listen to (the narration in the book trailer above comes directly from the audiobook)! Books 1 through 4 build on each other, but I think they could be read in any order. That changes with book 5, which broke the mold and ended on a major cliff-hanger.

Which brings me to 'The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches'. The point of this entire review.

I was so excited to get an advance copy from NetGalley, I moved it to the top of my reading list. It was an excellent book. But I don't know how to review it in advance without spoiling anything. So, here are some spoiler-free thoughts (after the jump) about the book. Once it has been published, I hope to return with a more detailed review.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Medieval X-men

Graceling takes place in a traditional fantasy world where some people have been marked with heterochromia showing that they have a “grace” or power. When Katsa, our lead, discovered her grace she was only 8 years old. She killed a cousin who had….let’s go with intensions towards her. A grace for killing is rare and very valuable so she was trained in the household of her king to be a weapon that he wielded against traitors and any others who dare disobey him. As she comes into her own, she realizes that what her king wishes isn’t just and, along with his spymaster, create the Council that ranges throughout the kingdoms working for good. It’s while performing a mission for the council that she meets Prince Po, who is also graced. Po’s grace is a major plot point, so I don’t know how much I can actually talk about their relationship. Just know that he’s amazing, and I love him.
Katsa is a girl I can identify with – anti-social, stubborn. I loved that she doesn’t change her opinions based on what others think and that her ultimate goal isn’t to fall in love and get married. It’s refreshing in a YA book geared towards girls. Po’s character is a brilliant counterpoint to Katsa, he’s gregarious, very independent and although he helps Katsa become more outgoing, he does it on her terms. The romance in this book (because what would a YA book be without a little romance) is paced very well, it isn’t insta-love that happens to often. It develops slowly and through friendship. 

This book was so good, I want to recommend it to everyone I know! I’ll admit, the last 20 pages or so were a bit of a letdown, which is why I give it 4.5 rather than 5 stars. Ultimately, though, it was a great read.