By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

If this book doesn’t move you, you must be a Nazi.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from February 21, 2019 to February 27, 2019.

WWII holocaust memoirs is a genre I never get tired of. Ellie Weisel’s Night, Eva Mozes Kor’s Surviving the Angel of Death and Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning top the list as some of my favourite memoirs. I love to devour books in this genre so that I never forget the past and to find strength and gratitude in their trials and suffering. By Chance Alone is an award-winning book that made it into Canada Reads 2019 shortlist this year and will be defended by Ziya Tong during the debates at the end of this month. The debate theme this year is, “One Book to Move You”. Could this book be the winner?

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Ziya Tong defending By Chance Alone by Max Eisen

Max opens the book with his childhood in Czechoslovakia before the war and how idyllic his life had seemed to him then. He is barely a teenager when he enters the Nazi concentration camps. Upon arrival, Max didn’t know it would the last time he would see his mother and siblings alive again. He was nearly sent the gas houses himself as he was just barely old enough off for the forced labour camps with his father. Max details the horrendous conditions that he had to endure in fine detail making it hard to believe that humans are even capable of this kind of depravity. Max’s father’s parting words to him would become a major part of his adult life:

‘”My father reached out across the wire and blessed me with a classic Jewish prayer:

“May God bless you and safeguard you. May He be gracious unto you. May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace.”…

Then he said, “If you survive, you must tell the world what happened here. Now go.”‘

Max managed to stay alive in the camps through sheer determination and a lot of luck but in the end, he was the only one of his family members to survive. In Max’s adult years with the help of some of his grandchildren, he became an educator and speaker on the Holocaust as part of his healing process and to stay true to his father’s final parting words.

If this book doesn’t move you, you must be a Nazi. My heart ached for Max and his family as I visualized the real trauma and the suffering he dealt with. Moving stories like Max’s are important as they make sure that we appreciate all that we have and to never let us forget what happens when radical leaders have vicious and radical ideas. The persecution of the Jews didn’t happen overnight. It started with the spread of malicious ideas and propaganda by a terrible leader that created and encouraged blind ignorance that was then driven by fear. Humanity takes a long to time change and heal, even after the war when Max was trying to get out of the country to Canada he learned that many of the people responsible for torturing the Jews were getting visas before him and the other victims of the Holocaust.

We need Max’s story, and others like him, memorialized in words so that we can ensure that we never make the same mistakes with human lives again. Max is a living reminder to be kind and considerate to your neighbours, to immigrants, and to those suffering in other countries for wars they want no part and dream of nothing more than a safe place to call home.

 

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

“It begins with absence and desire.
It begins with blood and fear.
It begins with a discovery of witches.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 579 pages.
November 15, 2018 to November 29, 2018.

I have committed a crime against books and against readers with my thoughts on this novel. How I came upon reading this book is through a smaller sin but it is the decision I made afterwards which is what makes me truly abominable. I discovered this book after watching the first season of the TV series based on the book trilogy. So my first book crime is that I read the book AFTER watching the TV show. Before I share my guilt about my most atrocious book crime, let’s discuss the book further.

Diana is a witch, though she has spent her whole life denying her heritage and her abilities. All she has ever wanted was to live a normal life and for her to reach her career goals based on her own merit. She left the US to pursue schooling in the UK as soon as she could as to escape the pressure of her aunts, who also raised her. Diana’s parents were both witches too but they were murdered when she was quite young, or so she was told. Diana’s family history and her heritage start to unearth themselves after Diana pulls a unique book out from the library. The book is magically embued and she quickly returns it after feeling its power. Shortly after, creatures of all kinds start to pester Diana. Demons. Witches. And especially vampires. All of who want to get their hands on this book and she doesn’t know why. The book has apparently been missing for centuries and she has been the only one who has been able to recall it.

Diana starts being pursued by a tall, dark and excessively handsome vampire named Matthew, which causes some concern for her friends and family due to the dark history between the two species of creatures. However, something is different about this vampire and Diana doesn’t feel threatened by him, in fact, he seems to want to help her. Diana cautiously enters into his confidence after some of her own kind turn on her and something more than friendship begins to develop between the two of them. Relationships between creatures of different species are forbidden but as the two fall for each other.  Now the congregation of creatures is after them and the book that Diana found. The two of them now must try and unravel the mystery surrounding Diana’s past, her heritage and the book that could be the key to the future of all the creatures.

Sounds like a really great concept right? That’s because it is but I have to admit the idea was not executed as well as I was hoping. The writing goes on tangents and isn’t very organized. This writing style was also confirmed to me when I attempted to read the second book in the series, Shadow of Nightwhich I could not finish as it was a disorganized mess. An editor clearly had a heavier hand in the completion of this novel making it readable and thank goodness, as this concept could have been completely ruined.

Here is where I commit my biggest atrocity and it pains me to say this… but… THE TV SHOW WAS BETTER! There I said it. And when I say better, I mean a lot better. Like infinitely better. The show took this great idea that the author had and polished it up and made it all shiny and awesome. I have no regrets because it’s true. I like the character of Diana more in the TV series as she seems stronger and more independent and the love story that develops between her and Matthew is an intense slow burner that felt realistic and was a pleasure to watch. The Matthew in the books is just too perfect and I found myself rolling my eyes with the romance that developed in the book.

Needless to say, I will not be pursuing the books series further. I will, however, continue to watch the TV series as I anxiously await the return of the second season. If you find the plot of this book intriguing and you want something smart and intelligently done, I would recommend the TV show.  This book wasn’t terrible but it just didn’t compare to the organized and streamlined show that came after it.

 

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 240 pages.
Read from November 26, 2018 to November 27, 2018.

Published in 1968, this novel is one of Ursula K. Le Guin first ventures into children’s literature. She never intended to write children’s literature but thanks to her persuasive publisher this classic fantasy piece exists. Ursula was not only a pioneer in fantasy and science fiction but she also managed to create accessible and YA novels that were also pieces of literature.  I’m not sure how this author went under my radar as she is a highly acclaimed author but I’m glad I’ve found her.

This story the classic coming-of-age story of a young wizard named Ged. Ged has a natural talent for magic which is what gets him away from his poor upbringing and into a prestigious school to hone his magical skills. However, Ged is overly confident and he makes a mistake that will affect him for the rest of his life. After learning the hard way the cost of power, Ged must find a way to deal with the Shadow that he has released upon the world and come to realize that you are defined not by your mistakes but how your rise to overcome and learn from them.

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”

 

Ged’s trials are what makes this book timeless as the message the story provides to youth is essential, especially when the majority of kids are terrified of making mistakes. The book also emphasizes kinship and friendship with others and with animals and the choices it takes to be brave. That, and what kid doesn’t want to read about winning over dragons and beating their own shadows? This book is exciting enough to appease any youth reader and insightful enough to satisfy any teacher or parent. In a way, I am surprised that this series doesn’t have more a cult following as I imagined it reading like the Harry Potter of its day.

What is also pivotal in this book, especially considering its date of publication is the colour of Ged’s skin. Ged is described as dark-skinned and is not Caucasian, despite the cover art on most of the earlier published books. Imagine the ethnic minority readers this would have spoken to in the late 60s, and even today, who might have never had a character to admire or look up before that looked like them. Ursula became known for pushing boundaries on gender, race, environmentalism and more in some of her other works adding that exceptional element of brilliance to her writing.

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Image by Charles Vess

While I have heard that this novel isn’t necessarily Ursula’s best work it laid the foundation for a phenomenal series and I know for me, it has made me want to read her more well-known adult novels and series. I would highly recommend that this book and its series be added as an essential to any fantasy-readers list and for those that love YA. This book is perfect for almost all ages making it a great book to re aloud to children or for those kids reading on their own.