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.