Monday, May 25, 2015

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

ISBN: 978-0-7710-7998-6

I've read a lot of books about the Holocaust in my life. I'm Jewish and it has been important for me to learn about what happened in Europe before, during and after World War II. The Book of Aron is a completely original take on a child living in the Warsaw ghetto and a look into the benevolence of Janusz Korczak. 

Aron, of course, is the aforementioned child. When his father gets a job in Warsaw, he decides to move his family from a small Polish town. Not long after, the Jews of Warsaw are forced to live in close quarters and their basic human rights are stripped from them. Aron, along with some friends, become a gang of smugglers, doing what they must to survive. Typhus and lice are factors, the quality of life is piss-poor. Ultimately, Aron loses his family to illness and the concentration camps and becomes an orphan. It is then when he meets Janusz Korczak--Pan Doktor: a man who had dedicated his life to the children of Warsaw. He takes care of Aron just like the rest of "his" children. His days are spent trying to get enough food to feed his orphanage, all the while not turning anyone away. His fate will be the death camp Treblinka, but only by choice--he refused to leave the sides of the children he had done his best to provide for. 

I don't think I've ever read desperation described like Shepard does in the form of Aron's actions. After being forced into some deplorable things, he regrets them but the reader never gets the idea that he didn't have to do what he did. He made his decisions based on survival, not profit. Also, he is just a friggin kid!

And Korczak...I really didn't know anything about the doctor before this novel, but I feel as though no one could have done a better job getting down to the soul of the man than the author. To call him a "good man" would be an insulting understatement--at least that is the picture that Shepard paints. 

I recommend The Book of Aron to anyone that likes to read. Jim Shepard has a reputation of doing his homework on the subjects that he writes about. If that's a fact, you, as a reader, can learn a great deal about an important humanitarian in a terrible time. I feel like I learned a lot about a topic that I already knew a great deal about. A different point of view of the same result: the worst time of your life and trying to get through it. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Heart of Hell by Alen Mattich

ISBN: 978-1-77089-437-2

I have always been interested in history and the wars that have formed and torn apart the current world. The Heart of Hell is set in Croatia in 1991--right in the thick of the Yugoslavian civil war. To be completely honest, I know very little about said war. In fact, this book may be the most detailed chronicle I have ever read (I was born in 1983 and it was never a focus in school for me, though I am now quite captivated and would like to know more.)

So the setting of the book is great. The Balkan conflict is illustrated quite well for a lay person like myself. It was definitely my favourite part of the book. 

Not that I didn't like the book. As I've stated in previous posts, the thriller genre (or more specifically in this case, political thriller) is not really something that I'm drawn to. But Mattich found a way to draw me in. The protagonist, Marko della Torre, is a former member of the Yugoslavian secret police. He is tasked by an American (presumably CIA) to find an old friend of his, Julius Strumbic, whom they believe has murdered another agent. Della Torre does not want to turn his friend in, but does want to find him and let him know. And so he dangerously embarks on a journey from Zagreb to Dubrovnik where he believes him to be. 

The story itself is a good one. The major problem I had was following, though: this book is the third in a series. As a standalone, it sort of works--there are little fill-ins that help the reader, but I feel like they work better as reminders for those who had read the previous books. I'm eventually going to find the first two novels as I would definitely appreciate The Heart of Hell more after reading them. 

As far as recommendations go, do yourselves a favour and read Zagreb Cowboy and Killing Pilgrim before reading The Heart of Hell. That way, you'll really enjoy an interesting, original series of political thrillers and you'll know more about The Montenegrin (a character that plays a crucial role in the series.)