The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

“In our hatred, we are like bees who must pay with their lives for the use of their stingers” ― Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen

“I hate the Führer,” she said. “I hate him.”

And Hans Hubermann?

What did he do?

What did he say?

Did he bend down and embrace his foster daughter, as he wanted to? Did he tell her that he was sorry for what was happening to her, to her mother, for what had happened to her brother?

Not exactly.

He clenched his eyes. Then opened them. He slapped Liesel Meminger squarely in the face.

“Don’t ever say that!” His voice was quiet, but sharp.

71h2sjik5al-_sl1380_This book just launched itself directly onto my list of favourite books of all time!

The Book Thief is narrated by Death – this is what first drew me towards it. The front cover depicts a young girl skipping hand in hand with the Grim Reaper – how could I not want to read this?

Despite my excitement I was less than enthused by the way the book began. The whole prologue had vaguely unnatural feel to it. I found it really difficult to get into and I worried that the whole book would continue in the same jarring, start-and-stop style. I knew I wouldn’t be able to force my way through the 500+ pages of text if Zusak didn’t grasp my attention soon.

Thankfully, my worries were in vain.

It was as though someone turned on a light, and I suddenly went from being vaguely uncomfortable to completely in my element. The rest of the book is written in a similar style, but whereas the prologue felt awkward and unnatural, the proceeding chapters click perfectly into place.

The book thief’s story begins in 1939 in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger is taken to Himmel Street in Molching, to the home of her new foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. Her communist parents have been taken away to concentration camps, and her young brother did not survive the journey to their new home.  On her first night in Himmel Street as she lies in her new room, the bed reserved for her brother lying empty next to her, she is plagued by nightmares of her brother’s death, and awakes screaming in a cold sweat. Her foster father, ‘Papa’, comforts her, reading to her from The Gravedigger’s Handbook – Liesel’s first stolen text.

As political tensions in Germany increase, Hans is called upon to fulfil a promise he made years before, forcing him to harbour a deadly secret, and placing the family constant danger. Despite their fears, relationships in the family grow stronger and each night Hans continues to read with Liezel. As her book collection grows, Liesel recognises the power of the written word and slowly begins to write her own story.

Zusak’s style, while perhaps slightly jarring at first, is wonderfully unique. The story is separated into small chapters, each focusing on a very specific point in time, with death drawing out the relevance of each occurrence to the wider story. The text is broken up with pictures, handwritten notes, and regular snippets of background information in amongst the main tale: brief statistics, information on Stalingrad, small observances, and even a pamphlet made from the painted-over pages of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are all slipped into the flow of the text.


The presence of Death as a narrator is interesting, and works really well given the context of the book. Throughout the novel the shadow of loss hangs heavy over Nazi Germany and Death himself is a constant feature on every street corner. As a narrator, Death foretells of which characters are due to meet their demise. Zusak allows you to fall in love with characters you know are going to die. And no, this doesn’t ruin the ending, it adds to the overall tension which builds up over the course of the book. It is as though you are placed in the midst of the inhabitants of Himmel Street, knowing that war will claim some of those that you love. Waiting to find out when Death will strike is the real struggle.

The Book Thief is unique amongst WWII fiction as it tells the tale of war-torn Germany from a Nazi-child’s perspective. Liesel Meminger is a wonderfully-developed and complex character who is just beginning to form her own understanding of the world. She understands the importance of doing as she is told out in the street, of Heil Hitler-ing the lady in the sweet shop and attending Hitler Youth in a neatly pressed uniform. But inside, she conceals her own personal judgements and aspirations, harbouring thoughts that must not be spoken outside the walls of 33 Himmel Street.

The Book Thief is marketed as a book for young adults, but I struggle to see how anyone, whatever their age, could fail to enjoy it. If you are interested in WWII fiction, or, like me, in historical fiction in general, then this really is a must read.

“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” ― George Orwell

Roger Martin is an ‘expendable’ young journalist.

The Blue Pencil – David Lowther


David Lowther’s debut novel ‘The Blue Pencil’ was published in 2012 and encompasses the author’s love for historical fiction. It is 1936, Britain is in recovery, emerging from the depths of the greatest depression of all time and still reeling from the effects of the Great War. As expansionist forces in Germany threaten to turn Europe into a fascist dictatorship, the British government cling desperately to any hope of peace. The Blue Pencil focuses on the coverage of foreign events in London’s Fleet Street from 1936-1939, shedding a new light on the lengths the British Government went to, to hide the truth from the Great British public.

The book takes its name from the infamous ‘blue pencil’ traditionally used by editors and sub editors to show corrections. The dreaded receiving back of a piece of work covered in blue pencil akin to the corrections shown by teachers in secondary school is something most of us can relate to. These days the blue pencil has been largely replaced by a red pen. I’ve had many conversations with fellow writers over the despair of receiving a piece of work back covered in red ink.

The Blue Pencil is written in the style of a diary, and follows the life of recent university graduate Roger Martin.  Coming from a comfortable middle class background, and having just graduated from Cambridge, with a “good degree”, Roger feels he owes it to his parents to decide what he wants from life. Roger’s news savvy girlfriend awakens within him a renewed interest in international affairs, which sets him on the path towards his future career:

“The Spanish Civil War, and the interest in it from newsreels and newspapers changed my life. For the first time I became aware that there was life away from Cambridge and that greedy men wanted to seize power for themselves without caring two hoots about the quality of life for the majority of citizens.”

With support from his university tutor Roger writes to several newspapers, and soon lands his first real job as junior reporter at ‘The Globe’, a fictional left wing newspaper. Roger describes at length his first impression of the newspaper’s press office during his interview, and the effect that the atmosphere had on him:

“Everybody in the room seemed either to be talking into the phone or typing, and those phones not in use seemed to be ringing. The air was thick with smoke and most desks seemed littered with ashtrays, piled high to overflowing, and cups and saucers.”

Lowther’s description of the Globe’s offices particularly appealed to me, conjuring up vivid images of Lois Lane tapping away at her desk in the Daily Planet press office.

Roger quickly settles in to his new role and before long finds himself more or less leaving behind film and sport reviews for more important coverage of international affairs. He covers Hitler’s movements throughout Europe, attempting to make his stories as hot and hard hitting as possible.

As it becomes evident that the government is determined to strangle the press, Roger has a different aim in mind, to let his readers know the secrets the government is working so hard to cover up. Despite several warnings from those close to the Prime Minister, which put much more than just his job in danger, Roger insists on publishing nothing but the truth. When faced with confrontations with ‘the blue pencil’, the owners of the newspaper, and even the police Roger does not back down.

The Blue Pencil is an incredible story of the attempts by authoritative figures to suppress the press in what turned into the most devastating war in British history. The novel introduced me to a piece of history I knew nothing about. While Roger may be a fictional character I know that his unpleasant experiences at the hands of Chamberlain’s government, whether direct or indirect are Lowther’s description of a very real, and shocking truth.

I was particularly impressed by the detailed picture of the 1930s which Lowther presented; the level of research which must have gone into writing this book is truly incredible. The story is historically accurate but this goes far beyond the realms of European politics at the time. Lowther clearly put an awful lot of time and energy into discovering the entire time period. The journalists and reporters who Roger comes into contact with are all real people; the hard hitting news stories were actually published, including ‘The Tragedy of Guernica’ by George Steer. Lowther even keeps up to speed with the results of the Ashes, and the films of the time, often sporadically name dropping films and actors. This is all done so naturally that it feels as though one were actually living at the time of all these events.

Lowther’s unique writing style, which combines the commonplace with historical events, has the effect of drawing the reader into deep into the pages of the book. Through this method the main character grows, becoming a person that the reader relates to, and knows on an almost personal level. Roger travels to Berlin and relates first-hand one of the most horrific nights in Jewish history “Women were screaming, children were crying and the Nazis were celebrating”. He tells the reader of the anti-sematic rag, Der Stürmer with it vulgar caricatures of Jewish men. At the same time we are made aware of the way Roger feels, his terror and disgust, and the emotional exhaustion he felt upon returning to England. Roger is more than just a hard boiled reporter, he has a real life and is a person like any other, with a mother who worries if he is not home for dinner, and a girlfriend, with whom he goes on country outings, and trips to the cinema: “things quietened down for a while. I spent a lot more time with Jane. We saw Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola (Not bad) and Will Hay in Oh Mr Porter (very funny)”. Historical fiction is at its best when it is relatable to those who have not lived through the events in question, and Lowther’s original method of interlacing the poignant with the mediocre achieves just this.

Overall I would rate The Blue Pencil very highly, it was comprehensible and interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I was captivated by Roger’s story, and drawn in by the realness of the characters and the situations; it really did feel as though I was stepping back into the 1930s. My one slight gripe is that there are multiple grammatical errors and spelling mistakes throughout the text, which is a shame. That said the mistakes were not so frequent as to ruin the book for me, and I would definitely still recommend it to others.

Many thanks go to Sacristy Press for providing a free copy of the book for review.