This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Twin brothers Victor and Konrad Frankenstein are inseparable, and together with friends Elizabeth and Henry embark on numerous adventures – real and imaginary. Their happy youth ends quickly one day as Konrad falls extremely ill, and in desperation, Victor turns to alchemy, and the forbidden library discovered in their ancient family home, to find a cure for his brother.

Having watched the play and read another retelling of the Frankenstein story last October, I could not resist revisiting the characters again.  I’m also a sucker for stories involving alchemy or magic, so why not? It was the perfect read for a short airplane ride.

Oppel’s novel is set earlier in Victor’s life, and introduces a twin brother to the narrative. The imminent death of his twin provides the perfect explanation for young Victor’s descent into the world of alchemy and other (future) questionable scientific endeavors. We also see his passion (perhaps misguided) as well as hints of the arrogance and selfishness that lead to his ruin. Great precursor’s to Mary Shelley’s character, without hitting you over the head with obvious links.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the sense of adventure in the story, its translation into young adult material,  and the budding romance/unrequited love story between Victor and Elizabeth, I wasn’t completely sold on Oppel’s take on the story and characters. Having lived through these experiences with alchemy, and the at times drastic results of their experimenting, I am not convinced that this young Frankenstein would go on to create the monster now so well associated with his name.

Of course, Oppel is not done. I did not know it when I was reading, but This Dark Endeavor is part one of a planned trilogy. There is still much left to read before the doctor’s demise.

Note: I don’t like to label books as “for boys” or “for girls” as I have always read books recommended for both. And yet, if you allow me to remove the quotation marks: this would be a great book for young boys. Yes there is some romance, but it is not a focus, and not overdone. It is filled with adventure and written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy. Of course, I believe most girls will enjoy it as well.

Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (May 22, 2012)
ISBN-10: 1442403160
ISBN-13: 978-1442403161

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Death first meets Liesel Meminger when he comes to take her brother away, and he visits her again many times before he comes to claim her. Death doesn’t make a habit of observing the living, he is generally too busy – and never more so than in Nazi Germany. The book thief is an exception. She cannot be ignored.

“Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A colour will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.”

When I discovered that the narrator of our next book club selection was Death – and that the main character was a young girl – I was not looking forward to the read. I wanted something a little… well, easier. This just sounded like too much. Once again, I was glad to be proven wrong.

 “It’s 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”

The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel, an eleven year old girl whose younger brother dies beside her on the train as they are being delivered to the home of foster parents by a mother who she will never see again. Liesel steals her first book at her brother’s funeral: The Grave Digger’s Handbook – A Twelve-Step Guide to Grave-Digging Success. With the help of her new foster-father, she learns to read with this strange muse, and goes on to liberate books from burnings and under-used libraries.

The Book Thief shows a less explored aspect of war history – that of a child growing up in Germany under the Nazi regime. A child whose family does not agree with Nazi principles, but is powerless to do anything about it. Liesel and her family live in Molching, a small town outside Munich, and on the road to Dachau. A parade of Jews on their way to the concentration camp is a common sight. Liesel must join the Hitler Youth. Her town is in constant threat of air raids. Life is a struggle, and yet children will be children.

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.
She was the book thief without the words.
Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” 

Having had a year when I am disappointed by books far more often than I enjoy them, I found myself in the awkward position of describing a book narrated by Death as a “breath of fresh air.” The Book Thief covers dark subject matter, yet it is whimsical, fantastical and uplifting. Liesel is a plucky heroine of the Anne Shirley sort, always able to rise above her circumstances. Death is a surprisingly clever and astute narrator. Word-nerds will rejoice in the descriptions of  a ‘soft, yellow-dressed afternoon’ or the aptly put “I am haunted by humans.”

Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (Sep 11 2007)
ISBN-10: 0375842209
ISBN-13: 978-0375842207


All of My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

There are 249 superheroes living in Toronto, but Tom is not one of them. His friends are, and so is his wife: the Perfectionist. On the night of their wedding, her jealous ex-lover Hypno hypnotizes her into believing that Tom is invisible, breaking both of their hearts.

All of My Friends are Superheros was easily the sweetest, saddest, funniest and most romantic book I have read in ages. It somehow manages to pull of being fantastical while still brutally honest, giving a view into the human psyche that no non-fiction essay could accomplish.

Join Tom and his amazing assortment of superhero friends in the wackiest tale of true love ever imagined. I believe this is one I will read again and again.

Thanks to Ang for the recommendation!

Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: COACH HOUSE BOOKS; 1 edition (Oct 16 2003)
ISBN-10: 1552451305
ISBN-13: 978-1552451304