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I wrote this non-spoilery review a while ago for Meet at the Gate, website of the excellent Canongate Books. I'm reposting it (finally) in case anyone still needs persuading to read this book, which is one of my all-time favourites.

The Book Thief is set in Molching, a small town in Nazi Germany that is far enough from Munich to avoid political significance, but close enough to Dachau that Jewish prisoners are occasionally marched through there. It's a town full of ordinary people who are struggling to survive a war - like the mayor's wife, who might almost seem to have given up on life...except for one small act of rebellion. Like Rosa Hubermann, who insults everyone impartially but loves warmly. Like Rudy Steiner, a boy trapped in a world he can make little sense of. Like Hans Hubermann, impoverished house-painter and accordionist, caught out by an old promise and his own sense of honour. And at their heart is Liesel: fierce, passionate, a lover of words and stealer of books.

When we first meet Liesel, she is nine and reeling from the loss of her family. Delivered to the fostering authorities, Liesel is thrown into a new life which, while poverty-stricken and plagued by Hitler's apparently arbitrary edicts, is a step up from her old one. At a funeral she steals a book, which turns out to be a handbook for gravediggers. It is the beginning of a journey in which Liesel, and eventually many other characters, find power through the written word while the world collapses around them.

Given the setting, it is perhaps appropriate that the narrator of The Book Thief is Death. Zusak isn't the first writer to make use of Death as a character, but he puts this narrative twist to excellent use here. To Death, humans are objects of curiosity, to be viewed (but not always kept) at a distance. Because Death is in turn relating Liesel's tale, it's hard to know from whom the descriptions originate, but they are always memorable: Rudy has hair the colour of lemons; Hans has eyes made of silver and kindness; Rosa is wardrobe-shaped. Words have power: they literally tap people on the shoulder, or even slap them across the face.

This is a story about death and about Death. But it is also a love letter to the human spirit: to the individual heroism that makes us human in the face of mindless mob brutality.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
I picked up this book on a whim after seeing it recommended by James Bradley on twitter. Well, I say "on a whim", but it was a bit more than, really, since James is also the person upon whose recommendation I read Justin Cronin's The Passage, aka my latest obsession.

In The Magicians, we meet Quentin, a geeky, unhappy teenager who is bounced out of his normal existence (finishing high school, going to Princeton) when he discovers that magic exists - and he can do it. Enrolled at Brakebills, the only college for magicians in North America, he falls in with the cool set - languid Eliot, drama-queen Janet, good-natured-yet-tortured Josh and clever Alice. At this point, I wondered if I was going to read The Secret History with added wizards, but Grossman has more up his sleeve than that.

Quentin has never quite let go of his favourite childhood books - a trait that many fannish people will recognise - in which a family of children are sent to live with an eccentric aunt and discover another, magical world. In this world, called Fillory, the children have various adventures and excitements, until (usually at the end of the school holidays) they are ejected by the godlike figures of Umber and Ember. If you're getting Narnia vibes now, you'd be right.

So magic, for Quentin, is almost like discovering that Fillory exists - like fulfilling his childhood dream of escape into this magical world where he can be a hero, and where he doesn't have to deal with the real world. Except that the real world refuses to go away, however hard he tries to forget his former life and however hard he works at magic. And when his time at Brakebills is up, he has to face the real world for, er, real.

The Magicians is what happens when you take the set-up of Harry Potter and stuff it, kicking and screaming, into our world. Don't get me wrong - I love the Harry Potter books, and part of their allure is the magical world that exists alongside our own. But Harry Potter approaches difficult moral questions with a battering ram rather than, say, a fountain pen. Harry has had a difficult - horrible - life, but he never struggles with his own self-worth; never really has to deal with anything beyond his willingness to risk his life for the forces of good. Which of course is a huge issue in itself, and part of what makes the Harry Potter books such a compelling and (for me) emotionally satisfying read.

Grossman's approach is different. For me, The Magicians is about happiness and where we can find it. The book is chock full of life lessons in a manner that sometimes threatens to become heavy-handed but never quite does so because the story is so damn enjoyable. It's wrapped up in tight but evocative writing and, if I didn't like everything about the way events played out, I can forgive that for the sheer pleasure that reading it gave me. Highly recommended for anyone who can take even a smidgeon of fantasy with their reading.
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Ah, my poor little neglected blog, how badly I've treated you! Apologies for the extended absence.

I have several very brief book reviews:

When We Were Bad - Charlotte Mendelson. The son of a feted female rabbi running off with the wife of another rabbi moments before his wedding marks the first in a series of cracks that open up in an apparently perfect family. This is close to being a perfect book. Seriously, if you have access to this one, read it. It's brilliant. Five stars

One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna. Hester's reclusive religious parents have their own ideas about how their daughter should be brought up. A fascinating, fresh take on a horrifying subject. Four stars.

Stuffed and Starved - Raj Patel. Clever and very well-written, as well as being packed full of information about the problem with the way today's food society operates and ideas as to what we can do about it. Patel's a great writer, and this book made me an instant fan. Five stars.

Burnt Shadows - Kamila Shamsie. An very apposite one in the current climate, this book examines cultural conflicts and their links and roots from Nagasaki to 911, wrapping around this a narrative that is moving and hopeful in the face of despair. Four and a half stars.

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey. A beautifully written, convincing imagining of a man's descent (or flight?) into alzheimers. Four stars.

With that out of the way, I want to concentrate on two excellent young adult books I've read recently, which go together very nicely because they're both based on alternate histories. Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist is set in 1930s Edinburgh, but history diverges from our own in 1815 when Napoleon defeats Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo. Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld, is set in a world in which Darwin's discoveries led him to DNA, and thence to the creation of new species that are used by humans very much in the way that we use machines in our world.

Both books offer fascinating insights into the twists and turns of what-ifs. More under the cut. )

This got me thinking: are there any other alternate histories that people can recommend? One I loved as a teenager is Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and sequels, but there must be loads more that I've missed out on.
lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
I had a gorgeous weekend away from my life last weekend; it involved lots of walking (in the pouring rain), watching tennis, exploring gift shops and lots and lots of reading. Here are the results:

Jazz - Toni Morrison: ****

I was never going to love this as much as Beloved, but it bears many Morrison hallmarks: prose that often reads more like poetry, multiple points of view, and a narrative that starts with a situation and then explores its history. I also found the setting (1920s Harlem) fascinating - who doesn't enjoy reading about a place they know nothing about, particularly if it's in Morrison's evocative prose?

The Whole Day Through - Patrick Gale: ***

I love the way Patrick Gale writes, but I felt rather ranty at the end of this book. Two characters who have allowed life to defeat them somewhat are reunited unexpectedly when they both move to Winchester to care for relatives. As usual with Gale, The Whole Day Through is not a linear story; instead, layers are exposed and re-examined one by one, and I found this process absorbing.

Gay characters are a common feature of Gale's novels; in this case the gay man was my favourite character, Ben's brother Bobby, who has Mosaic Down's Syndrome. It was great to see him portrayed as such a well-rounded character who is not defined by his medical condition, despite it being a big part of him.

Because this is Gale, nothing about the characters' relationships is straightforward, including the ending. I can't discuss that without spoilers, so please proceed at your own risk - don't click this cut tag if you don't want to know the ending. )

Ahem. Anyway. Beautiful writing; frustrating characters.
lizabelle: (Book and sea)
***** (out of *****)

Bad Science is Ben Goldacre's passionate, poignant and entertaining look at science reporting in the media and how people at large are suffering from this. He also has an (occasionally very sharp) axe to grind with the people and industries that have benefited from the same phenomenon, but that is not the focus of the book. The chapter on Patrick Holford descends into a rant, but hey, it's a hugely enjoyable, articulate rant, so who cares? There's also a moving chapter on a nutritionist named Matthias Rath who peddles vitamins to HIV sufferers in South Africa and encourages them to give up their antiretroviral drugs (ugh).

Apart from the few cases mentioned above, Goldacre's problem is not with individuals, but with the media's role in science today. He tries very hard to show the reader how to look for signs of problems in research and reports, as well as exposing "big pharma"'s role in medical research. The result is a book that is accessible to people like me, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Goldacre's blog (largely a mirror of his Guardian articles) is here.
lizabelle: (Book stack)
** (out of a possible *****)

I'm amused that the first "official" review on here is going to be such a negative one, because I'm usually quite a soft reviewer. I'm easily pleased: I can overlook a few flaws if a book has moved me enough.

Unfortunately, Restless failed to move me in the slightest, unless you count the number of times I rolled my eyes when I bumped up against yet another cliché or problem.

I should probably say that I enjoyed the book despite its flaws. It's an easy read, and a vaguely interesting one at times. I was keen to read the wartime setting, since that's an old favourite of mine, and the first chapter, in which twentysomething Ruth introduces us to her son and her widowed mother, was pretty engaging.

The book moves between 1976 (Ruth's storyline) and World War II (her mother's story). Ruth's chapters are told in the first person and Eva's/Sally's in the more distant third person POV; this may or may not be relevant later on.

It was when we moved onto Eva's story that the eyerolling commenced. The very first words of her story are "Eva Delectorskaya". Eva Delectorskaya? Delectorskaya? Come on, Mr Boyd. You just wanted to make everyone think of "delectable" when they saw her name, didn't you?

Cut for discussion of plot points with mild spoilers )

Mainly, I found the characters and plot implausible, and it's always annoying when you spot the baddie in chapter three and spend the rest of the narrative yelling at the characters for being so dim.


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