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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - 26
This is a remarkably good book. In just over 200 pages it says more about the holocaust than many weighty offerings.
Essentially written through the eyes of a nine year old boy, the language is direct and simple. Originally aimed at the young readers' market this is one of those cross overs into adult fiction. It is both strong and powerful and has a killer ending.
It is the story of 9-year-old Bruno who is forced to move with his family from the relative peace and calm of Berlin to a strange place that we learn is Poland. By putting together clues and pieces of the jigsaw, the reader stays one step ahead of Bruno. We soon realise exactly where he is and why he is there.
Bruno and family move to what he calls Out With but we soon realise it is Auschwitz. Bruno's father is an important man in Out With and we soon realise that he is commandant of Auschwitz, whilst Bruno remains confused and unsure. Bruno can see the barbed wire of the concentration camp, but thinks its a holiday camp and envies the young people he can see, assuming that they are playing together and having a good time. It is this irony that is central to the book, because we know better.
Through Bruno's eyes and his friendship with one of the "inmates" whom he meets daily, we begin to grasp the horrors of wartime Germany and Poland. Bruno also gets to meet a man he calls The Fury who comes to dinner and acts in a rather strange way. Despite its intensity there is humour in the book with Hitler being described as having "dark hair, which was cut quite short, and a tiny moustache - so tiny in fact that Bruno wondered why he bothered with it at all or whether he had simply forgotten a piece when he was shaving." When Bruno's sister tells Hitler that she can speak French he replies with a curt "but why would you want to." Poking fun at one of the most evil men to have lived just adds to the power of this story.
The centre piece of the story is the unlikely friendship that builds up between Bruno and Shmuel - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. - a young Jew in the concentration camp. They soon establish that they were born on the same day, but their lives couldn't be different. Bruno doesn't comprehend why his new friend seems to be getting paler and thinner. He takes him food but often eats it himself on the way to the barbed wire. Eventually the friendship has disastrous consequences in the most unexpected way.
This book is full of poignant moments, emphasising the frailty of youth before ignorance and hatred can take over. It is a beautiful example of how literature can still astound and amaze.
Next of Kin - 21
This is not the kind of book I would usually bother with, but having named his The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as my book of the year for 2007 I thought I would investigate.
This is very different. An historical murder thriller set around London of 1936 it has a number of plots and sub plots surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII and his affair with Wallace Simpson.
Boyne is a skilful writer and it has to be said that this is an enjoyable read as long as you take it with the proverbial pinch of salt. It features the breakdown of family relations and the corruption of politics amongst other matters as socialites, judges and a variety of other characters turn to crime and plot murders in order to achieve their own aims.
Much of it is contrived and at times the plot is sadly leaden but there are as many plusses as minuses.
Mutiny on the Bounty - 25
Another book with an historical perspective is this excellent offering by the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I thoroughly enjoyed this one from start to finish. It is an excellent portrayal of its subject matter through the eyes of Captain Bligh's servant lad John Jacob Turnstile, consigned to duties on the Bounty in lieu of punishment for being a London pickpocket. There are definite shades of Oliver and Fagan in the early passages, but once we get aboard the Bounty there is still plenty of the Artful Dodger about John Jacob but certainly more of Tom the Cabin Boy.
There are adventures a plenty but this is much more than just an adventure tale. It takes us inside the heads of many of the mutineers and looks at the whole question of loyalty. It is also a book about survival against the odds. Overall an excellent read.
The Absolutist - 25
John Boyne is one of my favourite authors for his gritty realism and the vast range of subjects covered by his novels. It sets him aside as a smart author always likely to source new ideas and new areas. The Absolutist tells the story of two friends during the First World War.
There is more to their relationship as soon becomes obvious from some quite harrowing passages from the trenches of France. The main subject of the book Tristan Sadler has kept a secret and after the war he seeks out the family of his friend Will Bancroft on the pretence of returning letters to Will's sister. But there is a much darker reason for his journey to Norwich than this and gradually this unfolds through the story of what happened during the war and also his meetings with the Bancroft family. It is a beautifully crafted novel and one of those that leaves you pondering long after the last page has been finished.
If I do have a criticism I agree with the Amazon reviewer that at times the languages and some of the phrases used are far too modern for a book set in the First World War period. Also some of the facts about Norwich seem a little loose such as the fact that Tristan is staring into the River Yare when it should be the River Wensum and a character's suggestion that a train setting off from Liverpool Station in London at just after 10 a.m would be in Norwich by around midday. In those days of steam such a journey would have taken over three hours. Other than that it's a rattling good read.
The Congress of Rough Riders by John Boyne - 23
Another rattling good read, although perhaps not as satisfying as the Absolutist. This one features legendary American frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody and his descendants which gives the author the chance to once again weave history into the present day. It's probably more satisfying from an historic point of view than as a modern day novel and at times reads more like a biography than a novel. Of course this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I felt the book did fall down a little in ambling towards a conclusion without any real twists and turns and at times was rather hackneyed in its approach as if it had been written to a formula. Nevertheless as an insight into the Wild West it is a really good read.
John Boyne books in order according to ratings