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.

Author Interview – Marion Husband

I am delighted to be able to share with you my exclusive interview with Marion Husband, author of Now the Day is Over.

Having read the book and gushed about it to all my friends (click here to see my review), I was over the moon to get the opportunity to learn a little more about the woman behind the words.

About the author

unnamedMarion Husband is a prize-winning author of poetry, short stories and novels, including the best-selling trilogy The Boy I Love, All the Beauty of the Sun and Paper Moon. She has an MA in Creative Writing and has taught creative writing for many years for the Open University and has lectured on Creative Writing MA courses in Newcastle and Teesside Universities. Marion is married with two grown up children and lives in Norton in the Tees Valley. Her sixth novel, Now the Day is Over, was published in October 2014.

To start with can you tell us a little bit about your most recent book, Now the Day is Over?

Now the Day is Over is a ghost story set between the present day and 1920. Unusually for me, this novel is told by one person – Edwina, a ghost. She is omnipresent – knows everything about everybody: an eye-of-god narrator, just the type of narrator I would discourage my creative writing students from using – too experimental, too liable to go wrong for all the questions the style begs: how does she know? Is she making up stories or telling the truth? But I did want to experiment with this novel, to toss it all up in the air. Now the Day is Over is also a love story, but is also about guilt, grief and suspicion. Edwina – the ghost – was a nurse during the First World War. She haunts the present-day house of Gaye and David (the house was once hers) and tells the story of their unhappy marriage, gradually telling her own story, too.

Where did your inspiration come from to write a book like this?

My inspiration for Now the Day is Over was the First World War and how men and woman survived the war’s aftermath. But I’m also inspired by places: the Victorian houses I grew up in; my home town of Stockton with all its cemeteries and parks and churches, its High Street and backstreets. Inspiration is a nebulous thing, I think; for me it comes mainly from what I’ve just written, whether the character is becoming interesting or not. I have given up on other novels because I’ve failed to convince myself that the characters are entertaining enough to keep me writing.

And what about Edwina? Can you give us an insider insight into your main character?

Edwina, the ghost, is mad: she was maddened by her childhood, by the war and by her marriage, but mainly by her brother who was also maddened by his childhood and his experiences in the trenches. Edwina never truly grew up – her mother’s death when Edwina was five petrified her – she remained that frightened child even as she nursed seriously wounded and dying men during the war. The reader has to decide if Edwina is mad or bad, a liar – a story-teller – or someone with special powers of mindreading…But then, she is a ghost and I have invented my own version of what ghosts can and cannot do.

How much research went into Now the Day is over? Does research play a large part in your writing process?

I researched Now the Day is Over by reading diaries and autobiographies of 1st World War nurses. I read many, many books about the war itself, including novels and poetry – research is about knowing your subject, looking things up when you have to. There are facts you must get right, the rest is interpretation.

Who is your intended audience for this book?

My audience? – everyone (although I know my own audience is largely women and gay men) – those men and women who read a lot, so much in fact to have come across someone as obscure as me. My honest answer re who my audience is? Me. I write to entertain myself.

The cover of the book is an interesting one. Who designed your cover? Why did you choose this particular image?

9781908381811-frontcover (2)The cover was designed by me – I wanted a picture of an angel standing over a grave in an over-grown cemetery – the kind of cemetery I played in as a child where there was an angel just like the one depicted – it would scare my brothers and me to death. The image came out as rather more glossy than I would have liked…Covers are problematic in my experience.

Do you have any interesting or fun facts about your most recent book you would be willing to share with us?

An interesting fact about the book – Edwina was originally Edward – my agent told me to change the sex as he thought I shouldn’t write another novel about gay men…

Edwina started out as Edward! I let that fact bounce around in my head for a little bit before moving on to some more general questions about Marion as a writer.

Which writers inspire you?

Writers who inspire me: Julian Barnes; Pat Barker; George Orwell (very much so); Sarah Waters; Hilary Mantel (the best living writer); Margaret Atwood; Philip K Dick. Too many to mention, really.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?

It takes me less than a year to write a novel – sometimes only three months. But afterwards there are the months and months of rewriting and despair.

How do you deal with the dreaded writer’s block?

I have writers’ block now – no ideas, no inspiration, nowt. I am not dealing with it now, but I used to deal with it simply by writing. I used to think there was no such thing as a block, but I was young then and on a roll…

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

If I have a writing quirk it’s trying too hard to be playful (a contradiction in terms?) I like flourishes and embellishments, allowing one thought to lead to another – a stream of consciousness, which is what Edwina’s narrative is, I think. I hope I won’t put off anyone reading Now the Day by saying this – I’m very definitely not James Joyce; I just like messing around with ways of describing a thing or conveying an emotion.

As a reviewer, I’ve noticed reviews tend to be a bit of a mixed bag, and often authors are less than happy to hear about potential problems in their work. What are your feelings towards good and bad reviews?

Good reviews buck me up for a few hours; bad reviews confirm all my own thoughts about my writing. On balance, though, it’s a bit like Kipling said – good or bad – Triumph or Disaster – both are imposters and for me they tend to cancel each other out.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

To aspiring writers I would say write a lot – a very great deal – write and write and write. But also read – read more than you write and soak it all up. I would say that you can only get good at something if you practice for many, many hours, but you also need feedback from a trusted source…In essence, write grammatically correct sentences and make sure your syntax is elegant, interesting and strong. Go easy on adjectives and adverbs; make sure the verb fits the action.

And finally, how can readers discover more about you and you work?

Discover more about my work on amazon, where all my books are for sale and where there are reviews and synopsis. Also I have a website –, but it doesn’t always work properly, like me, and so I have a Goodreads Author page where all my blogs are. I also twitter links to blogs and reviews: @marionhusband.

Marion’s Latest book Now the Day is Over is available to buy direct from the publisher, Sacristy Press, or from Amazon for those outside of the UK. If this interview has piqued your interest be sure to check her out, you won’t be disappointed. I have another of her books sitting waiting on my bedside table, so there will be more to come from me too. Watch this space!

Many thanks to Marion for taking the time to talk with me.

“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.

“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.” ― Oscar Wilde

Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all

Brideshead Revisited ― Evelyn Waugh


Brideshead Revisited is the first contact I have had with Evelyn Waugh, and I now find myself completely overwhelmed with the desire to explore and read more of his work. I enjoy a book that is a challenge, so that I can feel I have achieved something when I finally shut the cover for the last time, and this is how I felt having finished Brideshead. Waugh’s style was a little difficult to get used to with at first, but I soon found myself reading as though from book I had read many times before, whose words knew so well.

Waugh’s writing was once described by Gore Vidal as “so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American”, and when I first read this it struck me as an almost perfect sentiment, I don’t feel I can fault the style, while it is in many ways different to what I am used to, it works, almost perfectly.

Something I found most striking, and indeed satisfying, about Waugh’s style is his trademark use of rapid dialogue, unattributed but with the effect that the reader knows exactly who is speaking. This had such a profound effect that I felt as though I could actually hold a conversation with many of the characters in the book.

Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic look back on post war England, through the story of Charles Ryder, a captain in the British Military during WWII, who returns to a place he once knew so well – the home of the Marchmain family. The novel serves as Charles’ reflection on a time when his life became intertwined with that of the Marchmain’s, a highly privileged, catholic family, one of the few remnants of a rapidly vanishing world.

Charles original contact with the family was during his time at Oxford University, attached to the hip of the youngest son Sebastian, a charming, lovable figure, with an inability to let go of his childhood, as shown by his constant companion, Aloysius the teddy bear. Charles seemed so infatuated with every aspect of Sebastian, his profile, his conversation, his home, that the relationship seemed to me transcend that between just friends, and become almost romantic.

Charles found himself enchanted next by Sebastian’s family, bemused by their religion, charmed by the forgiving mother, and even the rogue father. Before finding himself engaged in a short but passionate love affair with the elder sister Julia, a girl so alike Sebastian in so many ways. Despite the apparent closeness that Charles is said to have shared with the family, there was a single dividing factor mentioned throughout the novel which seemed sure to separate these lives which at first seemed so inextricably linked.

It was not the Marchmain family’s position in society that sets them apart from Charles Ryder, but rather their religion. The presence of the Catholic church in the Marchmain household which was often a matter of contention during conversation between Charles and the Marchmain family. It was Catholicism which eventually reclaims even the shamed Lord Marchmain, who lived for years with his mistress, before proclaiming his belief during the last moments of his life. Finally it was Catholicism which drove Charles and Julia apart, when she realised that she could no longer commit to a life of sin.

Such are the memories that pass though Captain Charles Ryder’s mind as he stands in the closed chapel of the Marchmain family home upon his return in the midst of WWII. It seems as though his life will forever be drawn back towards this family, a family with whom he shall forever be spiritually distanced.

While I enjoyed the story itself very much, what stands out the most is that I feel almost as though these could be my own memories, and that I only have to open the book to be transformed once more to a carefree summer afternoon on the terrace of Brideshead.

I cannot claim to fully understand the writing of Waugh from reading just one novel, needless to say there will definitely be more Waugh reviews to come. I’m sure when I’ve read more I will look back on this one with a more educated eye. Until then, watch this space.

“Every man at the bottom of his heart believes that he is a born detective.” – John Buchan

I’m fairly sure I said I will ‘try’ and upload one review a day. This one’s only 11 days late!

The Thirty-Nine Steps ― John Buchan


John Buchan published this little novel in 1915. The newest edition has been published as part of Penguin’s Great Books for Boys collection, and it really is a great book for boys. On a side note, I actually came across this hidden on my partner’s book shelf, a lovingly inscribed present from his grandfather.

I have heard elsewhere that everyone has an inner adventurer that will love books such as this. While this may be true for some, I think it is misleading to say everyone loves an adventure. If you do however, this is the book for you.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is set four weeks before the commencement of World War I. The story is that of Richard Hannay and his unlikely entanglement in a German plot to steal secrets from the British military. The story begins with Hannay lamenting on how boring life has become, and wondering if leaving the country would award him a more exciting life. This all changes when Hannay meets for the first time his upstairs neighbour.

The neighbour, Scudder, confesses to Hannay that he is in grave danger and in desperate need of a place to hide. Scudder is a US spy with knowledge of an assassination attempt, due to take place on June 15th, which if successful will ravage Europe. Hannay believes Scudder and decided to help him out. However, when the very next day Hannay arrives home to find scudder himself has been murdered, he realises just how much trouble he is landed himself in. With both the police and the killers after him, Hannay decides to go on the run until the assassination is due to take place, with the hope of stopping murder before it’s too late.

Hannay is chased through England to the harsh Scottish wilderness, pursued by a mysterious aeroplane, as well as the London police. The novel follows Hannay through exciting chase scenes and incredibly narrow escapes, all while Hannay tries crack the code in Scudder’s diary – the key discovering where and when the assassination will occur. Hannay discovers the kindness of strangers who prove invaluable to his journey. An adventure loving reader will be kept engrossed by the mystery of “the thirty-nine steps”, Hannay must discover the meaning of this riddle in a race against time.

While this book isn’t necessarily the sort of thing I would normally choose to read, I did actually quite enjoy it. Although I do feel it’s more of a boy’s book – I think it would make a fantastic gift for a young boy who loves to read.  I won’t spoil the ending; nothing ruins an adventure like a spoiler.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about this book was the attention to detail Buchan used when describing scenes and people. I love the way Hannay can go from looking like a fine upstanding gentleman, to a dishevelled traveller, to a weathered road worker, and back again while all the time his image is kept meticulously clear in your mind.

I cannot stress enough that this is definitely a book for adventure lovers, and I feel it may also be appropriate for those with an interest in World War I.  Having been set around the time of the war itself it may be interesting to examine the novel in relation to history. Buchan is said to perfectly capture the feel of the time period.