The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Published: 14th March 2006 (print) / 15 June 2012 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Alfred A. Knopf / ABC Audio
Pages: 552 / 14 hours 22 minutes
Narrator: Dennis Olsen
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Historical YA
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this, it has been on my list for a very long time and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. There were some adjustments to make with the audio format, it took a lot of getting used to, but at the heart of it, it’s a beautiful story.

Zusak’s approach to the story is quite unique. I loved the narrator and I loved how the story jumped around in time, always connecting back to things with a seamlessness. I actually kind of liked that some parts were spoiled early on, it made me think that if key spoilers were going to be announced in the first few chapters, whatever secrets that were kept must have been even bigger. Little did I know that Zusak’s plan was to ruin you in a completely different way with words that crush you and emotions that sneak up on you when you thought you were safe.

There are so many components that bring this book together: the characters work together with the history, and their environment brings it all together perfectly. Zusak’s blunt in some ways, but can weave a descriptive sentence in other ways as well. In a conflicting situation, I both loved and hate the side notes. I liked that they were like small information snippets or opinions from the narrator that provided more information to the reader and it gave it a nice aspect of being like footnotes while you read. The problem with them though is they didn’t translate to audio very well. Not that they couldn’t have, just that they weren’t done very well in this instance. Olsen does a fine job with the audio, but the sidenotes are told in hushed tones, something that is very hard to hear sometimes. It also made me realise I’m not a fan of accordion music.

Another thing I loved was that Zusak doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. He brings out the strain and the tension of Hitler’s Germany, as well as the pressure to conform and the consequences if you don’t. Zusak manages to explore a wide range of the social and political climates through his characters without it feeling like they are being forced into situations in order to explain things. There was no sense of Forrest Gump where all the important things happen to be connected to the characters, and yet with the structure Zusak has created, there is always a natural way to get all the information across and bring the main characters into the story.

I did think it was a bit long. I get that it is meant to be an ongoing story that builds up gradually over the course of the war, but my halfway I was a bit tired. I still enjoyed the story, but I was surprised that I was only half way. In a way it made sense not to rush it, there is a lot of power in a slow story that sinks its teeth into you and makes even the smallest action weigh heavy by the end of the book, especially over the course of a war. Of course I got my second wind and by the time I got to the end I’d gotten back into the swing of the story and Zusak brings this epic journey to a brilliant end. It’s poignant, heartbreaking, and for all the warning you get through the entire book, Zusak still manages to punch you in the heart.

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Little Miss Sure Shot: Annie Oakley’s World by Jeffrey Marshall

Published: 5th May 2014Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Self Published
Pages: 148
Format: ebook
Genre: Biography/Historical
★   ★   ★   ★ – 4 Stars

Little Miss Sure Shot is a fictionalized account of the life of Annie Oakley, drawing heavily on the real timelines and events of her life. However, the book is not a biography – it invents situations, people she meets, and a myriad of conversations. Moreover, while the book is presented chronologically, apart from the prologue, it skips certain periods and attempts to focus on those that are especially vital, such as the early years Annie spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including the tours through Europe. A special feature of the novel is the framing of Annie’s loving marriage to fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she married at sixteen and remained married to for 50 years until her death. Frank was far more than just her husband – he was her manager (he gave up his own shooting for that role) and her constant companion. The novel closes with an epilogue in Frank’s voice, presenting an overview of their lives together and the circumstances of her death in 1926.

Little Miss Sure Shot is a fictionalized account of the life of Annie Oakley, drawing heavily on the real timelines and events of her life. However, the book is not a biography – it invents situations, people she meets, and a myriad of conversations. Moreover, while the book is presented chronologically, apart from the prologue, it skips certain periods and attempts to focus on those that are especially vital, such as the early years Annie spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including the tours through Europe. A special feature of the novel is the framing of Annie’s loving marriage to fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she married at sixteen and remained married to for 50 years until her death. Frank was far more than just her husband – he was her manager (he gave up his own shooting for that role) and her constant companion. The novel closes with an epilogue in Frank’s voice, presenting an overview of their lives together and the circumstances of her death in 1926. 

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review.

 Not knowing anything about Annie Oakley before starting this book I was not sure what I was in for but it wasn’t long before I became engrossed with the story. Marshall has been quite clever in his presentation of this book, stating clearly that it is not a biography, but it is also not a novel either. Somewhere in the middle is this book that looks at key moments in Oakley’s life, and explores her rise to stardom and life in the spotlight with a few fictional elements added.

There is not a lot of dialogue or plot, and being a semi-fictionalised account of Oakley’s life it isn’t supposed to have a plot per se, but Marshall writes in such a way that it has a narrative feel which also makes the story flow nicely. I liked that it read more like a novel than a nonfiction biography, having said that the writing does have an informative tone to it mixes this with snippets of dialogue and scenes that balance it out nicely.

Annie’s life is presented chronologically, though there are brief references to future moments or memories of the past, but Marshall connects these together smoothly and doesn’t jar the story with them. While Marshall admits this not a true biography, there is no doubting it has a great deal of information about Oakley’s life. Marshall explores Annie’s childhood and how she started shooting at 8 years old, and he also focuses intensely on her time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. One of the great and consistent elements in the story though is the exploration of Oakley’s marriage with Frank. As her husband for 50 years it is wonderful to see their connection grow and the influence he had on her life.

While the Wild West show was interesting, discovering about life during that time and the difference in society across Europe and America not to mention Annie’s place within them was fascinating. It was also wonderful to discover just how famous Annie was and the impact she had on the world. As a person she comes across as someone who is independent and knew what she wanted, and she was determined to be herself no matter what. Her strong ideals, ingenuity, and her desire that every woman should learn to shoot makes her a wonderful woman and key part of history, something which Marshall captures wonderfully.

I really enjoyed this book and I loved learning about Annie Oakley and her life. The problem of not being a real biography means there is an uncertainty about certain facts and events, but Marshall’s recount about Annie’s life piques your interest and curiosity in just the right way to want to go and learn more about her. Knowing this biography is based on some element of truth though makes the sad bits sadder but the good bits greater and there is no doubt it is a charming and heart-warming story and one of admiration for Annie and the life she lead.

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Desperate Reflections (#3) by Shay West

Published: 28th August 2014
Goodreads badgePublisher: Booktrope Editions
Pages: 248
Format: ebook
Genre: Young Adult/Historical/Science Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

In this final book of the Adventures of Alexis Davenport Series, we find Alex dealing with more drama than ever: her first break-up, her mom’s new boyfriend, and attempting to learn the secrets of her “gift” on her own. Desperate to stop Drifter, Alex uses her ability to locate the evil Traveler, only to discover that he lives in her time… And he knows who she is. In a final race against time, Alex must discover Drifter’s ultimate plan, stop him, and save her family…all before prom.

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review

From the revelation at the end of the second book I was eager to start reading the final one and find out what was going to happen. In the three years since discovering her ability Alex is slowly understanding what she is capable of. She is confident if not wary when it comes to travelling and it’s clear the various women she’s taken over have helped her discover more about herself. With the danger of the Traveller coming closer to home than ever before I’m glad West chose to put more light on the travelling than the school life and she did a good job in concluding the series and wrapping things up nicely.

The story is interesting and engaging as per usual and West adds a lot more intrigue and drama into the story which only adds to the enjoyment. With the Traveller closing in on Alex and she still trying to understand her abilities, there is the ongoing game of cat and mouse that they play both through time and not and the creativity West has in these situations is excellent.

West’s strength is certainly in the time travel aspects, but there is also an improvement in her writing about Alex’s home and school life compared to previous books and I think this comes down to good representation through the characters. Alex seems to be more settled at school and at home and the pettiness of the past has been put aside meaning she can enjoy herself more. There are still hints of the immature and petulant girl but West’s ability to portray these emotions is much more successful and suits the story much better as there is a greater believability and understanding behind them.

Alex’s pent up anger issues and outburst are given a detailed explanation and cause this time which was wonderful, and West works it into the story well. If West was using this as the cause of previous outburst, it isn’t until now that it has come across successfully. The events in this book may be the final straw for Alex where she snaps and the floodgate of emotions break through in their entirety, and even though previous books hasn’t explained this well enough, it makes sense this time.

The weak point is sometimes in the narrative voice, and while the story is interesting the narration sometimes lets it down. Somehow West is able to write in a way that is engaging and thrilling, while other times the writing and story falters and becomes quite oddly expressed but the interest remains and keeps you reading through these parts.

What stands out in this novel is that Alex certainly seems more confident in herself which reflects how much she has learnt about herself and how she has grown, and she is more open to addressing her feelings about issues in her life. It’s a small part of the story but it is great character improvement, especially for Alex.

There are answers given in this book, endings and explanations as well but West keeps some secrets to herself. The ending was really well done and I loved that West used details from earlier books to help Alex along. The story is engaging and at times can be fast paced and filled with tension and suspense, and as usual West makes you nervous about just how far the Traveller will go to stop Alex. I think the time travelling and certainly the conclusion makes up for the faults in the story and you finish feeling like a series has been concluded well and with a bit of mystery remaining. To be picky is to ask for a history on why Alex can travel through time and more detail about it but as a snapshot into her life and not into the grand scheme of things, West’s series is one that is intriguing and enjoyable.

 

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Twisted Reflections (#2) by Shay West

Published: 24th July 2014
Goodreads badgePublisher: Booktrope Editions
Pages: 190
Format: ebook
Genre: Young Adult/Historical/Science Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Alexis Davenport is learning to come to grips with her ability to travel through time, but she still hasn’t been able to stop the evil Drifter and his Master from trying to alter the past.

When she travels back to ancient Egypt, Alex gets a most unexpected surprise; she meets someone who can help her figure out how to use her powers, another Traveler like herself.

But can Alex learn how to control her gift before Drifter finds a way to stop her from meddling in his Master’s plans?

 

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review

Twisted Reflections is the second book in the Adventures of Alexis Davenport series and one that offers up a bit more information in the mystery that is Alexis Davenport and why she may have been chosen to stop someone messing with history. Alexis meets another traveller like herself during one of her trips who tries to help guide her on what her role may be. Their chance meeting gives Alexis an opportunity to gain more insight into her gift and realise just how important her mission is.

The novel covers a longer amount of time, but does jump forward most of it, skipping a lot of the school year. There is less importance placed on the Catelyn/Beau drama of the first book, and while there seemed to be a tense build up to the new school year West chooses to skip most of it instead, choosing to focus more on the summer holidays and Alexis’ relationship with her mother and friends.

Once again I felt that the time travelling aspect was a better read than the other parts in terms of story, style, and character, and though while some of the parts that faulted last time are improved, other issues develop and some are just redirected. Alexis again comes across as petulant and whiny, and she is certainly petty and jealous, but I’m starting to see that’s just who she is. But considering how much better she is when she is travelling it’s hard to see her as the same personality, though admittedly sometimes it slips through.

The writing and narrative is not perfect but the story is interesting and keeps you reading. The characters have out of the blue emotional outbursts and occasionally seem unreasonable and peculiar with no real explanation or warning but this does not really take away from enjoying the other parts of the story. The real intrigue comes from the time travelling parts where West writes curious and fascinating versions of historical moments and points in time. You forget any issue you had with the other parts and become involved with the period of time and the story it involves. The concept West has created is engaging and intriguing, with enough mystery and variability to keep you guessing and eager to find out, but not slow enough that it becomes predictable.

The ending is also once again very well done. It manages to bring the story to a new level and natural progression that adds a twist and a surprise to the reader while also offering more information and making you eager for the next book.

 

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Dangerous Reflections (#1) by Shay West

Published: 17th June 2014
Goodreads badgePublisher: Booktrope Editions
Pages: 214
Format: ebook
Genre: Young Adult/Historical/Science Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Alexis Davenport wants to go home. She hates her new school, her mother for moving her away from her friends, and her father for walking out.

To make matters worse, Alex is haunted by images of strange girls reflected in her mirror. It’s bad enough juggling homework, a relentless bully, boys, and a deadbeat dad; now, she must save the world from an evil presence hell-bent on changing the past – and our futures. Who knew her A+ in history was going to be this important?

 Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review.

I like the concept that West has created, it is clever, interesting, and has room to grow and develop.  Trying to find out why someone is trying to alter history and change key moments in time is fascinating in itself, but added with the fact Alex is the one to stop them, a girl unaware of her abilities and thrown into this situation makes it an intriguing read. I enjoyed the gradual progression into discovering Alex’s abilities. Starting slow allows a believable development in the emergence of her gift and it also makes it a good introduction for the reader. Once Alex understands more so does the reader, and allows the narrative to move on and increases the enjoyment of the story that one step further. This progression ends when Alex is physically drawn in through the mirror and finds herself out of her own time and out of her own body. Alex is pulled against her will into history, not knowing where she will end up or why.

There is no real introduction into Alex’s abilities, we are confused just like she is, but she handles it surprisingly well. Whether her love of history trumps the fear of what has occurred, or even an ingrained sense of her abilities I don’t know. I think also that when you are living something, regardless of when or where, you get caught up in the situation, something which is evident in the events of not just Alex’s first journey but the others as well. It isn’t until she returns and has time to process that she can reflect on what has happened.

Alex’s ability to travel into the past is not the sole focus of the story. The novel starts with Alex and her mother moving to live with her aunt after her father leaves. This gives us an introduction into Alex and the anger she feels towards her mother and the inconvenience she believes it has added to her life. These feelings balance out somewhat, rearing their head on occasion, but it isn’t long before Alex settles in with new friends and learns to like her new town.

The two sides of the story are not connected by anything other than Alex at this point. Alex is still a regular girl trying to get through high school, survive bullies, and get the attention of the boy she likes. There is a message about self confidence and being yourself, as well as the troubles of being a teenager, especially a fifteen year old girl, trying to fit in. It is sad in the beginning watching Alex try to be a different person, trying to be the person she thought she should be but it’s nice watching this attitude change as the book goes on. Alex experiences new things through her time in the past and gains confidence in herself to be who she is and not worry about what others think.

Having said that she is still prone to the temper tantrums and hissy fits she has in the beginning. I understood Alex’s sullen and angry nature at the beginning when we are told about her dad and the move, but she falls into the whiny teenager very quickly when things don’t go her way. I understand there are factors such as bullying that lead to a few of these, but they seem so extreme and a little childish, not like a teenage outburst at all. I felt that when she got upset about something she almost changed personalities. She doesn’t seem selfish or childish until things don’t go her way and when this happens it doesn’t seem to fit.

I can’t put my finger on it but the writing style didn’t always sit right either. I liked the story when Alex is in the past, the writing feels natural and runs smoothly, but when it came to her everyday life something seemed off, maybe a little bit stilted, it wasn’t enough that it threw you off the story but I did notice a difference. I don’t think that was intentional, certainly the story itself was interesting though you could almost claim the story rushed in places, but perhaps it is because we stay more within Alex’s thoughts rather than alternating to others like her mother and her friends’ thoughts at times.

As I say, when she is in the past or discussing her journeys it is very engaging. The more often Alex goes on these journeys the better she gets at coping and you are able to see that she is learning. She gains more memories of the person she inhabits, hones in on her skills and adapts more easily. In West’s writing you are also able to see the smooth blending of Alex’s mind and the other person’s. She alternates effortlessly between her memories and those of the host, and she inhabits the body well, allowing you to accept for a moment she is actually the other person, not just Alex’s spirit inside another person.

West also gives us a small insight into the other side of the story, the perspective of the man trying to change history. Nothing is given away, but through hints and clues, and combined with what Alex learns the puzzle can be pieced together, but is still nowhere near complete. I like that this is added in the first book, it is a tease of what is happening and gives us a mystery to hang on to besides total uncertainty or having to wait for further books to know more.

What I liked with West’s writing was the way we often understand things after the fact. Through Alex’s journeys and the numerous perspectives, you are able to gain a small understanding about what is happening. Seeing the “villain’s” point on view offers some information, but Alex also helps us understand as she tries to make sense of it to herself. We also learn a little about Alex’s gift through others, but we aren’t told, West lets us piece it together, and even then there are a lot of unanswered questions.

There is a lot more I could say about this book, there is a lot going on from both sides of Alex’s life that are worth mentioning but I would end up with an essay. I enjoyed both sides of Alex’s life and see a great start to a series forming, certainly one that captures the modern and historical. I have no doubt we will learn a lot more about Alex and the mysterious man in the next book and it is evident West has created a premise that is intriguing enough to make you want to keep reading. With a cliff hanger of sorts West leaves enough open ends to tempt you but also enough answers to satisfy you with a creative concept that not only mystifies, but requires a solution and an explanation not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.

 

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