historical fiction

JRF's #51 - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


Referred to by some as "Harry Potter and the Holocaust", this lengthy book came highly recommended from a variety of sectors, so when I found out my library had it, I picked it up.

Narrated by the personification of death, the book tells the story of Leisle, an orphan of communist parents who is taken in as a foster child by a poor German couple living outside of Munich right at the dawn of World War II.  As Liesle struggles to survive she makes many discoveries - friendship, the secret life of her loving foster father, and the wonder and power of books.  As her story progresses it inevitably intertwines with the larger narratives of what is happening around her - Kristallnacht, the Hitler Youth, the Holocaust, and the devastation of World War II.

Overall I enjoyed it.  The story is definitely compelling and the characters are rich.  I thought that telling the story of World War II from the perspective of a poor, orphaned, German girl was helpful in that it provided a portrait of World War II that is not often explored.

While the non-linear narrative told by Death was unique it sometimes got annoying and confusing.  My only other criticism would be that there was an excess of foul language, especially considering this book is from the Young Adult section.


JRF's # 20 - Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian


I've taken a liking to seafaring fiction and thought I would give this classic series a crack.  I was not disappointed.

Master and Commander is the first in a 21 book series by Patrick O'Brian that follows Jack Aubrey, a rash young captain in the British Royal Navy.  Taking command of his first ship, a small sloop, Aubrey has the daunting task of assembling, feeding, training, disciplining, and leading his crew, all the while navigating the warship-strewn Mediterranean sea and even more treacherous world of British Naval politics.

At many times I found myself comparing the book to Star Trek.  Just as the strength of Star Trek does not lie in special effects or action sequences but in the dynamics between the crew and the underlying social commentary, so also Master and Commander find its' strength in the relational dynamics between captain and crew, the friendship between Jack and Stephen the academically minded (think Spock) ships' doctor, the competition between Aubrey and his peers, the disdain between Jack and his authority, and the mutual respect between the enemy navies of the British, Spanish, and French.  There is much here to learn about leadership, friendship, and relationships.

I look forward to continuing the adventure that Jack and Stephen began in Master and Commander.

Here are a few quotes to get a gist of the language and themes of the book:


"Patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile."


"I know few men over fifty that seem to me entirely human: virtually none who has long exercised authority."


"by learning to obey, they are also taught how to command."




Mark's #43 - Matterhorn: A Novel of The Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

As a missionary to the military community, I try to read a few military related books each year.  When I saw this highly recommended book on Amazon, I realized that my depth of knowledge regarding the Vietnam War was very shallow and that this book could help broaden my understanding in regards to one of Americas less than fondly remembered forays into war (not unlike our current campaign in Afghanistan). As a highly decorated  Marine officer and veteran of the Vietnam War, Karl Marlantes does an excellent job of immersing the reader, almost immediately, in the deep tropical jungle of Vietnam.  Along the way, the story mostly  follows the young Lieutenant Waino Mellas and the men of Bravo Company.  As a 'boot' Lieutenant, he faces the horrors of war for the first time.

Through Mellas' eyes, one gets a sense of both the shear terror of leading a patrol in the jungle which could at any moment explode with NVA fire, land mines, or grenades. Beyond the heart pumping adrenaline of combat, there is an almost overwhelming monotony of jungle related ailments such as swarms of mesquites, blood-sucking leaches, and constant jungle rot.

In addition to helping me understand what it would be like to be in Vietnam during the war, the author also makes it clear of what he thought of the asinine political maneuvers during the war - both by Congress as well as those of the upper ranking military members trying to make a name for themselves and continue their climb up the ladder of rank and position.   While I have certainly heard and seen military commanders make baffling and blatantly stupid decisions, I felt that the author tried too hard to make all senior officers look like self-serving buffoons (other reviewers with stated Vietnam war experience seem to agree with this assessment).

Another point which seemed a little far fetched was that of the tension in race relations amongst the troops of the time.  Certainly the Black Panther movement was growing back in the states, but Marlantes makes it seem like a central point of concern for the men in the field during this time.  Perhaps it was, I don't know.

The book does seem to take a liberal slant on the war as a whole.  It also paints the NVA soldiers as utter professionals with a personal stake in winning the war because it was 'their land'... It wasn't their land, they were trying to sweep down south with their communist ideology.

Overall, this book is a sobering look into the lives, emotions, triumphs, and tragedies of a dark, difficult, and frustrating war.  I think that, for the most part, the characters are well developed and the scenes are masterfully described.  This is a good novel for an introduction to what it might have been like for the men on the ground in Vietnam.  Be warned, however, the imagery and language of this book can be very graphic at times.

Mark's #1 - The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

The Hangman's Daughter is mystery/thriller and historical fiction set in the Bavarian town of Schongau Germany in the early 1600's.  This is an interesting and different story, with some fascinating insights into that often brutal world.  As the reader, you get the sense that the setting and background for the book is very well researched.  Indeed, the author has ancestors who were part of the hangman heritage, and in the epilogue you can read about his research for the book. Though perhaps a bit long, the story managed to keep my attention throughout.  If you're looking for something different, with an engaging storyline and compelling characters, I would recommend this book.  If you have a kindle, you can get it here for $3.99

If you have a kindle and would like to 'borrow' the book from me, email me and I'll send it to you (it stays for two weeks on your kindle).