I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak: B+

From the back cover:
Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Doesn’t this sound like the premise for a geeky TV show or movie? It certainly had that sort of vibe at first, with narration and dialogue that prompted me to mentally cast Simon Pegg in the role of Ed and Nick Frost as his annoyingly childish friend, Marv.

Pretty soon, though, things got a lot more serious. The cards Ed received sent him on a variety of missions, from kind of sappy things like spending time with a lonely old lady and rustling up a congregation for a priest to more dangerous ones, like dealing with a drunken lout who abuses his wife. I liked that the messages for Ed’s three best friends were the last tasks he had to complete, and that it forced him to take the scary steps of breaking through the pattern of superficial interaction he’d had with them and finding out their secrets, fears, and what it was they really needed. The resolution of Marv’s message was particularly moving.

The writing was often funny, but sometimes a little too pretentiously poetic. Example: “Voices slam and the door shouts shut.” Things like that disrupted the narrative flow of the story with their clunky construction. Plus, they conjured memories of high school creative writing assignments, which is seldom a good thing.

The ending was weird and very disappointing. The identity of the person behind Ed’s mission made very little sense. Zusak apparently felt the need to reinforce the already-obvious point that Ed’s not actually the messenger, but the message, and it concluded things on a rather confusing note.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A+

From the back cover:
“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…”

Narrated by Death, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a young foster girl living outside of Munich in Nazi Germany. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she discovers something she can’t resist—books. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever they are to be found.

With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, Liesel learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

Markus Zusak has created an unforgettable novel about the ability of books to feed the soul.

I’m no particular World War II buff, but found The Book Thief to be exceptional and fascinating. The endearing, deftly drawn characters themselves are what I loved the most. The tale’s not as glum and dire as one might expect: there are many funny bits, heart-warming bits, and mischievous children. There are also some incredibly sad bits, which oughtn’t be surprising given the subject matter.

The story is uniquely told by Death, who is a droll storyteller. He’s weary, and he gets no particular relish from his job. To him, war is nothing to revel in—it’s just more work heaped upon him. The narrator of the audiobook, Allan Corduner, renders him excellently and thoroughly Britishly.

There’s not really a linear plot, just a variety of incidents occurring to the families living in one little neighborhood over a period of several years. In fact, Death sometimes jumps ahead in time to fill one in on a character’s eventual fate, which then made for bittersweet reading when one returns to the narrative in which they are so vibrantly alive.

My favorites of the wonderful, memorable characters, in ascending order of preference: Liesel’s foster mother, Rosa, yells a lot but has a big heart. The scenes where the fierce love she has for Liesel is most obvious are very moving. Liesel’s best friend, Rudy, is a brave, energetic boy (always pestering her for a kiss) who’s perpetually hungry. But absolutely stealing the show is her new “papa,” Hans Huberman. I absolutely adore Hans, as he’s one of those sweet, patient dads who knows the right things to say and is absolutely a good man through and through.

The Book Thief is technically a young adult book, but doesn’t really feel like one. It could just as easily have been marketed as adult fiction. There are many things to recommend it (and I do, highly) but the vivid characters alone are enough.