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Archive for the ‘read in 2009’ Category

“You know what’s best about today, Jack?” Mary asked as she stirred the last stubborn bit of a Hershey’s bar until it too melted into the pan of chocolate on the hot plate.  “The best thing about today is that we’ve got each other.”  She turned from her task, standing at the end of a long bureau, and looked across the small room at her son.  Jack stood with his eyes fixed on rows of tiny pink roses that ran up and down the wallpaper.

“In all of Chicago, I’ll bet there’s not one other mother with a son like you and not one other boy who has a mother like me.  That makes us unique, little man.  It makes us special.”

(from The Silent Gift, page 37)

Set in the 1930s, The Silent Gift tells the story of Mary Godwin Sinclair and her deaf mute son Jack.  Michael Landon Jr. and Cindy Kelley begin the book with the unusual story of Jack’s birth, so readers know right away that he’s a special little boy.  Jack is born to a mother who loves him fiercely with all her heart and soul and a father who is ashamed of his disability.  Jerry isn’t going to win any husband or father of the year awards; while Mary is worried about the family being evicted from their apartment, Jerry buys himself a new car and comes home with a wad of cash and divorce papers in his pocket.  Mary, focusing only on providing a good home for Jack and escaping Jerry’s tirades, grabs the cash and runs.

After leaving Jerry, Mary must find a place for her and Jack to live and a job that will allow her to be with Jack all day, as he cannot be left alone or with anyone else.  Forced to spend time in a homeless shelter after losing all their money, she learns that Jack has a special gift — a gift that goes on to save some lives and bring hope to others.  However, Mary also discovers that some people want to use Jack’s gift for profit, namely Jerry, who in a twisted turn of events is reunited with his family and causes Mary to be separated from Jack.

That’s all I want to say about the plot because not knowing Jack’s special ability and the events that transpire because of it allows the story to unfold slowly and beautifully, with just the right balance of action, tension, and drama.  Landon and Kelley have created some memorable characters in Mary and Jack, with their connection to one another taking center stage.  Mary devotes her entire life to Jack without ever once hearing him say he loves her or hugging her or doing more than showing a slight hint of recognition in his eyes.  Mary carries a lot of baggage, evidenced by disfigured hands hidden by white gloves, and these issues prompted her to run into the arms of a man who cannot accept her or their child for what they are.  At times, Mary seems too naive and trusts the wrong people, but she likes to see the best in everyone.  I think we all can learn something from Mary in the way she treats her child and approaches life.

The Silent Gift is labeled as Christian fiction, but if you don’t tend to read books in this genre, don’t let that label scare you off.  Landon and Kelley do not preach to or try to convert their readers.  The Christian aspect of the story is tied to Jack’s gift, but it’s not overdone.  Mary struggles with her faith, but that also isn’t overdone.  As a Christian, the biggest problem I have with the Christian fiction books I’ve read is that they typically feature characters in need of conversion and one or two characters tasked with converting them.  Because the Christian message is so subtle in The Silent Gift — basically boiling down to one word:  love — it ranks among the best books I’ve ever read in the genre.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Silent Gift.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Silent Gift from Edify Media for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Source: Personal library
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Though disappointed with such a beginning, Lady Catherine held the greatest hopes for her third and final ninja, the deadliest of the three.  But no sooner had she snapped her fingers, than Elizabeth flung her Katana across the dojo, piercing the ninja’s chest and pinning him against a wooden column.  Elizabeth removed her blindfold and confronted her opponent, who presently clutched the sword handle, gasping for breath.  She delivered a vicious blow, penetrating his rib cage, and withdrew her hand — with the ninja’s still-beating heart in it.  As all but Lady Catherine turned away in disgust, Elizabeth took a bite, letting the blood run down her chin and onto her sparring gown.

(from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, page 130, 132)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is not the typical retelling of the beloved classic Pride and Prejudice.  Grahame-Smith basically takes Austen’s words and throws in some zombies.  That’s the short of it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this book, with some people absolutely hating it and some thinking it great fun.  I lean toward the latter, but I wouldn’t say I loved it.

I would recommend that anyone who doesn’t approve of another author taking charge of Austen’s characters steer clear of this book.  A mysterious plague has settled over England, and for many years, the “sorry stricken” have died and emerged from the ground as zombies, unless they have been beheaded and burned.  The Bennet sisters — Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Lydia, and Kitty — have all studied the deadly arts in China, and they are masters of the sword, dagger, and musket.  Elizabeth is especially accomplished in this regard; in one scene on the way to visit her best friend Charlotte Lucas after her marriage to Mr. Collins, Elizabeth’s carriage is attacked, and she takes on hundreds of dreadfuls on her own, and later she kills three of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s best ninjas while blindfolded.  Jane Austen purists might be shocked at this treatment of their beloved characters, but I honestly thought the book was hilarious.  From Lady Catherine and Elizabeth sparring to Charlotte slowly becoming a zombie without anyone noticing to Wickham’s unfortunate inability to control his bodily functions, I found myself laughing throughout the book.

However, I don’t think writing a few new scenes and altering the characters here and there while using most of the author’s original work makes for a good book.  Mrs. Bennet is still annoying and still focused on marrying off her daughters.  Mr. Darcy is still arrogant, Miss Bingley is still obnoxious, and Lydia still runs off with Wickham.  One thing Grahame-Smith changed that I really disliked was Elizabeth’s personality.  As in the original Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth is a strong woman who voices her opinions.  But Grahame-Smith has given her a violent streak that just doesn’t sit well with me.  When Jane is snubbed by Miss Bingley and the entire Bingley party leaves Netherfield, Elizabeth wants to defend Jane’s honor by killing Miss Bingley.  When Mr. Darcy proposes for the first time, albeit badly, Elizabeth kicks him and sends him flying.  And then there’s the eating of the ninja’s heart (see quoted passage above).  I guess when zombies have been brought in, there’s no sense stopping there.

Still, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was fun, and I’m not sorry I read it.  But the illustrations by Philip Smiley steal the show.  Seriously, the book is worth buying just to flip through and see the detailed drawings of the zombies…and Elizabeth taking them down.

Disclosure: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is from my personal library.

© 201o Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“I just wanted to know…” began Mark slowly.  “I mean it’s silly but I was thinking.  Do kids have to be like their parents?”

Mr. McDonald frowned.  “I’m not sure I get your meaning,” he said.

“Well, say someone’s father did something really evil…like Hitler or Pol Pot,” he added hurriedly.  “Would their kids be evil too?”

(from Hitler’s Daughter, page 61)

In Hitler’s Daughter by Jackie French, four friends in present day Australia spend their long wait at the bus stop each day telling stories.  Most of the stories are about fairies and that sort of thing, but one day, Anna decides to tell a more serious story — a story about a young girl named Heidi whose father happens to be Adolf Hitler.  If in real life Hitler had a child, you wouldn’t expect her to be like Heidi; while he’s trying to breed a “perfect” race, his daughter is born with a large red birthmark on her face and a limp because one leg is shorter than the other.  Heidi wants to live a normal life and be allowed to play with other children and spend time with her father, but Duffi (her nickname for her father, Hitler) is never around and Heidi is concealed from the world like she doesn’t exist.

Because the people tasked with caring for Heidi are scared to say too much in her presence for fear their comments will get back to her father, she doesn’t hear about the goings on in the outside world.  When she hears someone talk about the Jews and asks who they are, all she is told is that the Jews are different from them.  When she hears about a family being arrested for hiding Jews and learns something bad could happen to them, Heidi does what she can with her limited knowledge and limited access to the outside world — she clears out a barn and slowly takes food from the pantry to store in the space where she plans to shelter Jews if they ever come to her for help.  However, with a child-like innocence, she doesn’t think about whether her father is doing something wrong; she continues to seek attention and love from the only parent she knows — just like a child whose father isn’t one of the biggest mass murderers in history.

Hitler’s Daughter is seen from the point of view of Mark, a 10-year-old boy who is greatly affected by Anna’s story.  He can’t stop asking questions about Hitler and the Jews, whether children have to grow up to be like their parents, whether you can love someone guilty of such crimes, and how does one know that the things they believe are right truly are.  And these are the same questions I posed to The Girl as we read this book together.  These are hard questions, and the adults in Mark’s life have a hard time answering them.  But what bothered me about the book was that Mark’s parents weren’t comfortable with his questions or were too busy and shrugged him off.  Personally, I’d be glad to know that my child is truly thinking about the world around her, and even if I didn’t have any concrete answers, we could discuss what we believe to be the right path.

The story is filled with action, especially when Heidi is taken to Hitler’s Berlin bunker at a time when the city is being bombed non-stop.  The Girl was so engrossed in the story, she gripped my arms at the tense parts and insisted that I keep reading.  Hitler’s Daughter is suitable for grades 4-6, but even adults will learn something from this story.

Disclosure:  The Girl borrowed Hitler’s Daughter from her school library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words.  I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer — or my life, period — would not have become what it is:  that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.

(from Night, page viii)

I’ve read several Holocaust memoirs and novels over the past year, and each one has the power to shock me, sicken me, make me angry, and make me cry.  Despite the pain and the horrors within their pages, I continue to read them because I believe it is important to remember.  We should not forget the millions who lost their lives, and like Elie Wiesel says in the above passage, we must not allow the world to forget what evil has been done.

In Night, Wiesel tells how he and his family were sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944.  They had lived in Sighet, Transylvania, and were told of the horrors that awaited them two years prior by a foreign Jew who was among the first deported and had escaped from a trench filled with the bodies of massacred Jews.  But no one paid him any mind.  Soon after arriving at Auschwitz, Wiesel — age 15 — and his father are separated from his mother and sisters.

“Men to the left!  Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion.  Eight simple, short words.  Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.  There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine.  We were alone.  In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right.  Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand.  I saw them walking farther and farther away.  Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her.  And I walked on with my father, with the men.  I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. (page 29)

Wiesel’s words are so simple, yet so powerful and heartbreaking.  He goes on to describe the struggles he and his father endured every day for months and months at the hands of the Nazis — how they marched in the snow with barely any clothes or shoes, how they watched a son kill his father over a crust of bread, how he watched his half-dead father be beaten by an SS officer.

Wiesel’s recollections of his experiences during the Holocaust are vivid and haunting.  His words are heavy with darkness, desolation, and the loss of faith in the midst of evil.  Night is a book that stays with you long after you turn the last page with a heavy heart.  If you only read one Holocaust memoir in your lifetime, let it be this one.

Disclosure:  I won a copy of Night in a blog giveaway. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Frederick E. LaCroix is the son of Captain Robert LaCroix, a World War II fighter pilot who served in the Pacific.  The Sky Rained Heroes: A Journey From War to Remembrance is supposed to be the story of a bloodied Japanese flag his father took home as a memento of victory — a victory that involved the death of the flag’s owner, Sergeant Yasuyuki Ishizuka.  Frederick inherits the flag, and he decides to return it to the Japanese officer’s family, which involves a 6-year journey through Asia.  This is what the book jacket promises — a memoir about the journey to return the flag.  However, I was disappointed to learn that the flag is only mentioned in detail at the very beginning and very end of the book.

What fills the remaining pages is a history lesson.  LaCroix goes into great detail about the history of Japan, its military, and the reasons behind the Japanese invasion of China and other nearby nations.  I found a lot of interesting because I know a lot about the European aspect of World War II and next to nothing about the war in the Pacific.  However, some of the writing is dry and reads like a textbook, which made it difficult for me to stay focused.  Other times, LaCroix inserts his own opinions in flowery language that seems out of place in a non-fiction book.  He also includes stories about his business in the Philippines, which come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with the story of the flag.

We Americans perceive ourselves as liberators.  We are troubled by much of the world’s refusal to see us as we are convinced we are — rational, altruistic, and egalitarian.  Yet standing on the ledge from which the young Japanese woman unflinchingly launched herself and her most precious possession, one senses the guiding, commanding power of collective memory, its prism refracting, altering perception.  The child’s mother, in death, as in life, submitted with ancestral fidelity to an ethos she neither questioned nor understood. (page 245)

The inclusion of wartime letters written by his father to his parents and siblings that detail his fighter pilot training and combat experiences were the highlight of the book.  This is where you get a real insider’s view of the war.  An excerpt from a letter dated Feb. 3, 1945, from Luzon, Philippines:

Had a freak accident the other day.  A tribute, incidentally, to American planes.  A light bomber caught a frag bomb in the fuselage, almost severing the tail.  The pilot flew it back.  Just as he landed, the shock of the landing broke the tail section completely off.  In spite of it, he kept it rolling straight and no one was killed.  It was a real miracle.  War brings out all sorts of queer accidents.  I’ll tell you some others, sometime. (page 183)

I’m glad I finished The Sky Rained Heroes because I learned many things about Japan and its role in World War II.  However, the book lacked the emotion I was expecting, especially concerning the return of the flag, which isn’t surprising given that this part of the book was wrapped up in just a few pages.  I only wish the book jacket had been more accurate in its description of the contents.  My feelings toward the book might have been more favorable if I’d known what to expect — that it would be heavy on history and light on personal and family experiences.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The Sky Rained Heroes from Phenix & Phenix Literary Publicists for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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“I didn’t know!” she sobbed.  “Papa, I didn’t know, I thought we were coming back, I thought he’d be safe.”  Then she looked up at him, fury and pain in her voice, and pummeled her little fists against his chest.  “You never told me, Papa, you never explained, you never told me about the danger, never!  Why?  You thought I was too small to understand, didn’t you?  You wanted to protect me?  Is that what you were trying to do?”

Her father’s face.  She could no longer look at it.  He gazed down at her with such despair, such sadness.  Her tears washed the image of his face away.  She cried into her palms, alone.  Her father did not touch her.  In those awful, lonely minutes, the girl understood.  She was no longer a happy little ten-year-old girl.  She was someone much older.  Nothing would ever be the same again.  For her.  For her family.  For her brother.

(from Sarah’s Key, page 57)

Sarah’s Key is a heartbreaking novel that centers on a real but little known incident that occurred in France during World War II.  The Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup on July 16, 1942, involved thousands of Jewish families being taken from their homes and housed for days in disgusting, degrading conditions in the Paris stadium before they were taken to the Auschwitz gas chambers.  More than 4,000 Jewish children ages 2 to 12 were killed.  The roundup is a stain on France’s history, mainly because the French police — not the Nazis — pulled these families from their homes, and many of the children who perished were born in France.

Tatiana de Rosnay brings this tragedy to life in the story of Sarah, a 10-year-old girl who on the very first page is faced with the police pounding on the door.  Her father, hoping to escape arrest, is not at home, but later joins Sarah and her mother.  Sarah, assuming that she and her parents will be home in a matter of hours, tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in their secret hiding place — a concealed cupboard in their bedroom wall — with nothing but a flashlight, cushions, toys, books, and a flask of water.  Sarah’s parents know what is happening, the fate that likely awaits them, and their desperate and failed attempts to return to their home to rescue the boy broke my heart.  Weeks later, Sarah manages to escape the camp and is determined to make her way back to Paris and to her brother…but will it be too late?

For about half of the book, the chapters alternate between Sarah’s story and that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris with her French husband and daughter in 2002.  She is working on a story about the roundup for the 60th commemoration.  Julia throws herself into the investigation, and her heart is broken as she learns about all the dead children and parents, how their homes were quickly reoccupied, and how few people want to remember what happened.  Meanwhile, she is struggling to save her marriage as she learns she is pregnant and her husband decides he is too old to be a father again.  As she decides what to do with her husband’s ultimatum — have an abortion or our marriage is over — she stumbles upon a link between her family and Sarah’s.

Sarah’s Key was a great read, but be ready to shed a few tears.  De Rosnay does a great job building tension with regard to Sarah’s story.  Will she reach her brother in time?  I can’t imagine being in Sarah’s or her parent’s shoes, and I wouldn’t want to.  Once the fate of Sarah’s brother is determined, de Rosnay tells the rest of the story from Julia’s point of view, and this is where the book began to drag a bit.  I was completely engrossed in Sarah’s story, but Julia’s story just wasn’t as captivating.  I’m not saying I didn’t find Julia to be an interesting character, it’s just that I found the scenes about her personal life a bit disrupting to the flow of the novel, and one would assume by the title that Sarah’s story is the main focus of the book.  De Rosnay resolved both plot lines by the end of the book, with the rest of the Sarah’s story told through Julia’s investigation.  However, after learning what happened to Sarah after the war, the book continues to resolve Julia’s issues, and I thought this part of the book could have been shortened.

Overall, Sarah’s Key was an engaging, emotional read, and it brings to light a little known historical event.  Sarah’s story is among the saddest I’ve ever read, and while mostly devoid of hope, it seems authentic, which is important when dealing with subjects like the Holocaust.

Disclosure:  I received Sarah’s Key as a gift from my husband.  I can’t believe it sat on my shelf for nearly a year! I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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As the days grew longer, I read longer, so that I could be in bed with her in the twilight.  When she had fallen asleep lying on me, and the saw in the yard was quiet, and a blackbird was singing as the color of things in the kitchen dimmed until nothing remained of them but lighter and darker shades of gray, I was completely happy.

(from The Reader, page 43)

In The Reader, German writer Bernhard Schlink tells the story of Michael Berg, who at age 15 begins an intimate relationship with Hanna Schmitz, a 36-year-old streetcar conductor.  They meet when Michael falls ill with hepatitis, and Hanna helps him home.  After he recovers, he goes to her apartment to thank her, thus beginning a relationship based on lust and a thirst for words, with Hanna forcing Michael to read to her before they make love.  Michael spends much of his time visiting Hanna, trying to keep up with his school work, and hiding their relationship from family and friends.

Michael is hurt when Hanna leaves one day without a trace, and his feelings for her (was is love? lust? obsession?) and the time they spent together make it difficult for him to pursue other relationships.  He sees her again when he is a college student and she is on trial for crimes committed during World War II as a Nazi concentration camp guard.  This is where the story gets interesting.  Michael discovers Hanna’s secret, the thing of which she is most ashamed, that prevents her from defending herself against murder charges and ties her and Michael together for the rest of their days.

The Reader is told by an adult Michael in the first person as he attempts to write the story of their relationship many years after the trial and its aftermath.  While I thought the book was well written, I had a hard time connecting with the characters — maybe because I find the idea of a sexual relationship between a teenage boy and a woman just a few years older than me extremely disturbing.  (She calls him “kid” for crying out loud!) Michael seems to understand at the time that their relationship isn’t quite right — he finds it difficult to talk about it even years after they separate and doesn’t tell his wife — but that could be because the adult Michael is telling the story, not an impulsive teenage boy with raging hormones.  From the way he tells the story, Hanna is sort of detached from things much of the time, so while she initiates their first sexual encounter, it seems as though Michael goes back time and again because he wants to, not because he’s coerced or anything like that.  As for Hanna, I can understand that her secret was distressing, frustrating, and even embarrassing, but was it worth life in prison (which she deserved regardless of whether or not she defended herself)?

The Reader raises a multitude of issues — questions of morality, guilt, and atonement regarding Hanna’s actions as a concentration camp guard, Hanna and Michael’s relationship, and post-war Germany as a whole.  Here’s another passage that caught my eye, when Michael hitchhiked to the Struthof concentration camp and the driver gave his opinion about why the Holocaust occurred.

“But the people who were murdered in the camps hadn’t done anything to the individuals who murdered them?  Is that what you want to say?  Do you mean that there was no reason for hatred, and no war?”

I didn’t want to nod again.  What he said was true, but not the way he said it.

“You’re right, there was no war, and no reason for hatred.  But the executioners don’t hate the people they execute, and they execute them all the same.  Because they’re ordered to?  You think they do it because they’re ordered to?  And you think that I’m talking about orders and obedience, that the guards in the camps were under orders and had to obey?”  He laughed sarcastically.  “No, I’m not talking about orders and obedience.  An executioner is not under orders.  He’s doing his work, he doesn’t hate the people he executes, he’s not taking revenge on them, he’s not killing them because they’re in his way or threatening him or attacking him.  They’re a matter of such indifference to him that he can kill them as easily as not.” (page 151)

Personally, it doesn’t matter whether the guards were all crazy, whether they were following orders, or whether they were indifferent — it’s all wrong and makes me sick to my stomach.

Overall, I thought The Reader was a page-turner and a great read simply because it has the power to generate strong emotions and discussion on so many topics.

Disclosure:  I purchased my copy of The Reader. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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