Tag Archives: Jews

Getting Shanghaied

The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla (Forge Books; 464 pages; $26.99).


            Warfare can ravage the places we call home to such an extent that our surroundings become almost unrecognizable to us.  Conflict can destroy the very places and people we hold most dear.  Combat can also tear families asunder, yet armed confrontations should never threaten our way of life or break our spirit.  In Daniel Kalla’s novel The Far Side of the Sky, hope never dies, even in the very darkest of hours.

The concepts of home and of places are palpable in Kalla’s story.  Yet the author takes it even further by exploring the loss and longing war unexpectedly brings.  Relocation means a new home must be found.


That isn’t always easy, as Kalla demonstrates when he focuses on two war-torn cities: Vienna and Shanghai.  Throughout his tale, Kalla’s fully-realized characters manage to keep hope alive, even in the face of certain death.  He gives his individuals a kind of courage we should all strive to have in less than ideal circumstances.


Kalla shifts his narrative between two outsiders: Franz Adler and Mah Soon Yi (Sunny).  At first, the two protagonists are worlds apart, both literally and figuratively.  Their meeting, friendship, and ultimate romance feel somehow destined and inevitable.  In less capable hands, the story might easily grow tedious and dull; however, Kalla’s mastery allows him to create an intriguing, tension-filled story.

In fact, this tale so captivated me that I devoured the story in one sitting.  In a sense, The Far Side of the Sky “shanghaied” me.  Nothing could tear me away from the troubled times, places, and people Kalla creates.  Shanghai, especially, comes alive in his story.  No history book could portray the climate better.  Kalla’s characters also persuaded me to continue reading.


Franz, a non-practicing Jew, lives with his daughter in Vienna in 1938.  The Nazis recently dismissed him from his renowned position as surgeon at a hospital in the city.  Kristallnacht (the night of crystal), the Nazis murder his brother.  Franz knows he must flee.  He is especially worried about his daughter, Hannah, who has cerebral palsy.  He can only imagine the horrible atrocities the Nazis would inflict upon her, both handicapped and Jewish.  Hannah, ironically, does not “even know how to be Jewish.”  Franz arranges to secure passage to Shanghai for himself, his daughter, and his sister-in-law, Esther.


Shanghai is a different world entirely and the place where many other Jews are seeking asylum.  Kalla is at his best when he describes Shanghai, a city many foreigners call home.  Inside this city French people, Chinese people, British people, Jewish people, and Japanese people all live.  Japanese soldiers invaded China in the 1930s, and the situation is precarious but Franz feels it is better in Shanghai than Vienna.  His beliefs are put to the test, though, once the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Hitler and the Japanese grow cozier than ever.


In Shanghai, Franz meets Sunny.  Sunny, in her own eyes, is a “perpetual outsider” since her father is Chinese and her mother is American.  All her life, she has been the subject of bigotry.  Sunny volunteers at a Jewish hospital and there she meets Franz.  Since they are both outcasts, they are drawn to each other.  Kalla, of course, puts many obstacles in the couple’s way that both must overcome.


Kalla peoples his novel with many historical figures and events.  The author does employ literary license with some characters as he molds their actions and words to fit his needs.  At times, everything feels so real that I believe everything Kalla writes.  He has the ability of putting a spell on the reader.


I was particularly enthralled by a few of Kalla’s peripheral characters.  But I think Kalla has the most fun with Franz’s artist friend, Ernst.  Ernst is flamboyant and often speaks before he thinks.  Sunny’s friend, Jia-Li, is also an intriguing character.  Strong secondary characters like these allow Kalla to create a number of interesting sub-plots.


Somehow Kalla’s story appealed to all five of my senses.  Shanghai is the place that allows him to do this.  His emotional, vivid story brings the city to life.  The Far Side of the Sky will appeal to fans of Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay), The Baker’s Daughter (Sarah McCoy), Shanghai Girls (Lisa See), and The Piano Teacher (Janice Y.K. Lee).


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The Columbus Enigma

The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books; 448 pages; $27).

            “In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  The simplicity of this rhyme belies the true nature of a man and a myth.  You think you know Christopher Columbus, but you know so little of the story.  Even after 520 years, much about him remains a mystery.  And that makes him good literary cannon fodder for Steve Berry.


Novelist Berry is best known for his books featuring the heroic protagonist Cotton Malone.  Whatever the assignment, Cotton is the man and saves the day in many of Berry’s novels, such as The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Charlemagne Pursuit, and The Jefferson Key.  As you can see, Berry’s thrillers all have ties to European or American history. 


The Columbus Affair is a standalone novel.  Unfortunately, Cotton Malone does not grace these pages.  This reader missed him.  One “old” character Berry does employ is the head of the Magellan Billet, Stephanie Nelle.  From the beginning, then, Berry gives us something different: new characters.  But his penchant for playing with history remains.


Berry has fun with this novel.  Columbus is a man with whom he can play and even mold to his own needs.  I believe Berry chose Christopher Columbus as a topic simply because he is an enigmatic and controversial figure.


When I have the pleasure of teaching American history, I ask my students to write an essay in which they argue if Columbus was a hero or a villain.  Responses run the gamut.   Some point out that, while the Americas were already inhabited by Natives, he was the first European to set foot in America.  Others say his valor, if nothing else, should be celebrated.  After all, he sailed into the virtual unknown and deserves respect for that alone.  A few argue that this land on which we live would be very different had he not embarked on his four voyages.  More often than not, many others consider him one of history’s villains.  He paved the way for more European exploration and colonization, which ultimately led to the enslavement of Indians and Africans and the decimation of whole tribes from “virgin-soil epidemics.”  Everyone has an opinion about Columbus.  Love him or hate him; few are in between.


Berry’s Columbus is a dark, unknowable figure.  He is a keeper of secrets, a teller of lies, and a man with a hidden agenda.  Columbus says, “The English and Dutch call me Columbus.  The French, Columb.  The Portuguese, Colom.  Spaniards know me as Colón.  But none of those is my birth name.  Unfortunately, you will never know my true name….”  According to Berry, Columbus’s true name was Christoval Arnoldo de Ysassi; that makes him Jewish.  The Columbus we know was said to have been born in Genoa, Italy, and thus Italian–definitely not Jewish.  Berry also describes the inconsistencies over his birthdate.  Columbus himself gave different years: 1447 and 1453.  “The best guess is…1451.”  The day Columbus and his crew set sail on his first voyage also happened to be the morning after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain.  Coincidence?  Berry thinks so.  Especially given the fact that Columbus had a Hebrew translator on board and not one Catholic priest.  Interesting?  Very.  Perhaps more so when you discover that little tidbit is historically accurate. 


Berry will make you question everything you thought you knew about Columbus.  I mean everything.  From his birthplace to his birthdate to who financed his first voyage to his religion to his first language to his reason for sailing.  I urge you to not take anything Berry writes at face value.  Research Columbus for yourself.  Keep in mind this is fiction, and Berry writes with purpose.  He employs literary license in his story, and that is what makes The Columbus Affair so darn intriguing–not that it happened exactly as Berry writes but that it could have happened.


I could go on and on about the plot, but I do not want to spoil all the surprises (some shocking ones too!).  I will say that Berry weaves together historical and religious myths in this story.  I thought some were implausible and even downright wild at times, but the book is highly readable and compelling.  I dare you to stop reading this book.  You may gasp, you may emit a “ha!” but you will continue.  You are too engaged in this story to stop.  It really is the Columbus angle, more than any other element, that drives this story.


Berry takes all the mysteries surrounding Columbus and runs with them.  In the middle of all this, he tries to create characters, plot, and a setting, but really Columbus’s shadow looms over the entire book.  He is center stage while they are merely bit players, no matter how much Berry tries to make them stand out.  None of them are Cotton Malone.  None of them match Columbus’s mystery and magnetism.


In fact, Berry’s characters are too archetypical.  Zachariah Simon, the antagonist, is a villain with an ancient cause.  Tom Sagan is the story’s protagonist, once a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrongly accused of fabricating a story.  Alle Becket is Tom’s wayward daughter who, at the end of the book, returns to the fold.  Then, there is Béne, the Jamaican Maroon, who can be a hero or a villain depending on one’s lens.  From the beginning, I could see where these characters would go and how they would react.  My initial guesses were correct.  I only wish Berry had thrown some curve balls where they were concerned.


In The Columbus Affair, Berry is too preoccupied by Columbus.  He is too busy carving out an elaborate, unbelievable story that his other characters suffer in the process.  Then again, the title is all about Columbus.  He is the star of this show.  How I miss Cotton Malone.  Berry seems to know Malone intimately, as well he should.  Wonder when the next Cotton Malone will come out…


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The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley: A Comparison

The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy (Random House; 304 pages; $23).

The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley (Simon and Schuster; 464 pages; $15).

            Over the past few years, the book world has witnessed a rising trend in which a present-day protagonist, grappling with her own problems, stumbles upon an intriguing past mystery.  Only when she solves the puzzle can she then tackle what is wrong in her own life.  Curiously, many of said novels have ties to World War II.  Recent notable books in this genre are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum (2005); Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay (2007); The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2008); and The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (2009).

Two new novels are a welcome addition to this fairly recent development: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy and The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley.  Both books have a similar feel yet are very distinctive.  Both feature strong, memorable heroines and move from our own time into a past we cannot even begin to contemplate.  Yet these women must; if they do not, then they will never get on with their lives.

In Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter, the main character is Reba Adams, a writer who lives in El Paso, Texas.  Reba dreams of going to California but has not capitalized on her vision yet: “I thought I’d start here and eventually make my way to California—L.A., Santa Barbara, San Francisco.”  She has yet to leave Texas, however.

Several things stand in Reba’s way.  She is engaged to Riki Chavez, an agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, but Reba is reluctant to commit.  She wears her engagement ring on a chain around her neck; she is not ready to wear it on her finger, and she may never be.  Her parents had a difficult marriage.  Vietnam affected her father so badly that he later committed suicide.  The tragedy led Reba to flee her Virginia home when she was old enough, and she has only minimal contact with her mother and sister.  She is unsure of Riki and of their relationship; most of all, Reba is unsure of herself.

Reba is like the border town in which she resides, “stuck in between” where she is and where she is headed.  She is a very flawed, even damaged, character, making her a very relatable and very real protagonist.  Like most of us, she does not have it all together.  Reba is far from perfect.

An assignment leads Reba to a German bakery where she wants to interview an elderly woman on Christmas traditions around the world.  The old woman, Elsie Meriwether, the owner of Elsie’s German Bakery, is uncooperative.  With a deadline fast approaching, Reba spends more and more time with Elsie and her daughter, Jane.  Soon, though, Reba finds she likes visiting the women.  She opens up to them.  The feeling is mutual.  Elsie opens up to Reba not about German Christmas traditions but about a Christmas in 1944, one that changed everything.

Here is where The Baker’s Daughter truly shines.  Elsie and her parents run a bakery in Garmisch, Germany, a city where Gestapo soldiers raid houses and residents fear for their lives in the worst days of World War II.  McCoy renders the bakery especially well.  I could smell, see, and taste the breads and sweet treats.  My mouth still waters thinking about them.  Goodies aside, the bakers move this part of the story.  At seventeen, Elsie is being courted by an SS officer who is closer in age to her father than to her.  She does not love him.  Rather, Elsie adores Hollywood movies and is more concerned with keeping a secret that could get her and her family killed.

McCoy has done meticulous research for The Baker’s Daughter.  The best example of her diligence is Elsie’s older sister, Hazel, a participant in the Lebensborn Program.  This was part of Germany experiment to perpetuate the Aryan race by producing blond-haired, blue-eyed German children with high morals, exceptional intelligence, and an unbreakable bond with the state.  Hazel, in effect, had babies for Germany and had to give them up.  Lebensborn was real, and McCoy accurately portrays this chapter in German history.

McCoy, little by little, never too much too soon, reveals what happens to Elsie and her family.  Elsie’s story transforms Reba in ways readers will cheer.  Thus, Elsie and her family take on the role of helper characters as they steer Reba back on the road to life.

I love The Baker’s Daughter and feel the novel is even better than Sarah’s Key.  McCoy effectively draws a comparison between anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant (read: anti-Mexican) sentiment.  She uses Riki to do this.  Rather than being heavy-handed and didactic, it works rather well.

While characters propel The Baker’s Daughter, it is the setting that drives Lucinda Riley’s The Orchid House, already a bestseller in Europe.  The true star of Riley’s novel is Wharton Park, a majestic British estate “comprising of a thousand acres of fertile farmland” that has been in the Crawford family for three hundred years.  The house, though, is not as grand as it once was.  Running the estate requires a lot of money, money the present heir, Kitt, simply does not have.

Wharton Park holds a special place in the heart of Julia Forrester, a world-renowned concert pianist.  As a child, Julia spent time there since her grandparents were long-time employees of the Crawfords and lived in a cottage on the grounds of the manor.  Her grandfather grew exotic orchids and made Wharton Park famous for the rare flowers; her grandmother, Elsie, was a lady’s maid.  Their devotion to the manor parallels that of the servants of Downton Abbey for the Granthams.  Julia’s summers at the estate were dreamlike: “The tranquility and warmth of the hothouses—sitting snugly in the corner of the kitchen garden, sheltered against the cruel winds that blew in from the North Sea during the winter—stayed in her memory all year.”

A horrible tragedy makes Julia remember Wharton Park all the more.  Her husband, Xavier, and their son, Gabriel, were killed in a car accident.  A forest fire started as a result.  Their deaths have understandably broken Julia.  She is a changed woman unable to play the music she played the night of the catastrophe.  She seeks comfort in a cottage near the sea in Norfolk.  But Wharton Park beckons to her.  It is an idyllic place where she so desperately needs solace, “a place of peace.”  Julia recalls wistfully that at Wharton Park, “nothing changed.”  “Alarms and timetables weren’t in charge, it was nature dictating the rhythm.”

That earlier, easier time appeals to Julia so much that she returns to Wharton Park for an estate sale.  While there, she runs into Kitt Crawford, the new heir.  They had briefly met as children when Julia played his late uncle’s piano but have had no contact since then.  A friendship develops with the promise of more.  Kitt is renovating the cottage her grandparents had called home.  In the midst of remodeling, he discovers an old diary of a man imprisoned in Thailand during World War II.  Kitt mistakenly assumes the diary is the property of Julia’s grandfather.  Her grandmother, though, reveals the diary belonged to the deceased Lord Crawford, Kitt’s uncle, who, together with Julia’s grandfather, was a prisoner.

Julia finally comes back to life as her grandmother tells her events before and after the war.  This is my favorite part of The Orchid House.  The lives of two young couples take shape: William and Elsie and Harry and Olivia.  Riley’s real focus, though, is on Olivia and Harry.  She marries Harry only to find him kissing another man.  Devastated, she continues on with her unhappy marriage because that is what was done back then.  The outbreak of war sends both Harry and William to Thailand, where they are later captured.  After the war, William returns to England before his master; Harry suffers more sickness and thus takes longer to recuperate.  While in Thailand, Harry falls in love with a young Thai woman named Lidia.  He plans to divorce his wife and marry Lidia.  However, after he returns to Wharton Park, he must fulfill his obligations to his wife, his family, and to the estate.  Harry writes to her.  When his letters go unanswered, he sends his trusted servant, William, to Thailand.  William’s journey changes everyone’s lives forever.

Just when I think Julia and Kitt will live in bliss, Riley throws several curveballs.  She does this to mix things up.  First, we learn that Julia and Kitt are kissing cousins, which I finally decided to go along with.  Second, Julia’s husband rises from the dead.  This is difficult to swallow.  I could not wait for Julia to leave the horrible cad.

Riley reminds me of Kate Morton, and I also see traces of Downton Abbey.  If you are a fan of either, I recommend this novel.  It is easy to understand how The Orchid House took Europe by storm.  I predict the same will happen in the United States.

The Baker’s Daughter is a character-driven novel, while The Orchid House is propelled by its setting.  In that sense, they are very different.  Each has a distinctive voice and feel.  Yet both feature heroines stuck in a certain place in life, desperate, tragic, or even both.  Neither protagonist can continue on the path she is on.  She must find a new road.  A past mystery or secret is the only thing that can propel the women forward.  A quest is what each must undergo.  Solving the riddle means another chance at happiness and at life.  Perhaps that is why these novels appeal so.  Second chances are a universal desire.


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Peter Orner’s “Love and Shame and Love”

Please read my review of Peter Orner’s novel Love and Shame and Love I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register.  Read it here.

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