And After The Fire by Lauren Belfer

And After Fire Stack

Lauren Belfer has written a compelling novel on an unknown Johann Sebastian Bach cantata that is hidden until present day. The masterful work is entitled And After the Fire (452 pages).

An overview from the publisher:

In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him.

In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.

In Berlin, Germany, in 1783, amid the city’s glittering salons where aristocrats and commoners, Christians and Jews, mingle freely despite simmering anti-Semitism, Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned musician, conceals the manuscript of an anti-Jewish cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, an unsettling gift to her from Bach’s son, her teacher. This work and its disturbing message will haunt Sara and her family for generations to come.

Belfer expertly weaves the separate stories of Sara and Susanna into one compelling story. It is fascinating how Belfer efficiently switches from one character to the other even though they are centuries apart. A true masterpiece in writing.

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The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman – Part I

View from the Cheap Seats Cover

I have a confession and an apology to offer about The View from the Cheap Seats.

First, I will confess that I didn’t pay attention when requesting a review copy that the books was 544 pages.  I simply thought: “Oh, a collection of Neil Gaiman’s non-fiction writing? How interesting. I should read that.”  But about halfway through, I was started wondering just how long this book really was and noticed the answer was very, very long.

And this brings the apology. I haven’t finished reading the book yet. Perhaps a second confession is in order.  I am not really a fan of comics; although I have been reading some graphic novels now that my kids enjoy them.  I didn’t grow up reading comics and know very little about the genre or its history. I enjoy Gaiman’s fiction but really know nothing about his comic work.

So I got a little bogged down in the sections dealing with comics and the comics industry and took a bit of a break from reading. Sorry.  That is why I a writing a “review” of a book I haven’t finished reading.  I figured I get some pixels down since the book has been out for two weeks and the publisher probably didn’t give me a review copy so I could write a review sometime in the distant future.

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The View from the Cheap Seats Book Cover The View from the Cheap Seats
Neil Gaiman
Literary Collections
William Morrow
May 31, 2016
544
HarperCollins

An enthralling collection of nonfiction essays on a myriad of topics—from art and artists to dreams, myths, and memories—observed in #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s probing, amusing, and distinctive style. An inquisitive observer, thoughtful commentator, and assiduous craftsman, Neil Gaiman has long been celebrated for the sharp intellect and startling imagination that informs his bestselling fiction. Now, The View from the Cheap Seats brings together for the first time ever more than sixty pieces of his outstanding nonfiction. Analytical yet playful, erudite yet accessible, this cornucopia explores a broad range of interests and topics, including (but not limited to): authors past and present; music; storytelling; comics; bookshops; travel; fairy tales; America; inspiration; libraries; ghosts; and the title piece, at turns touching and self-deprecating, which recounts the author’s experiences at the 2010 Academy Awards in Hollywood. Insightful, incisive, witty, and wise, The View from the Cheap Seats explores the issues and subjects that matter most to Neil Gaiman—offering a glimpse into the head and heart of one of the most acclaimed, beloved, and influential artists of our time.

Hell from the Heavens: The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II’s Greatest Kamikaze Attack by John Wukovits

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Kamikaze – that word spread fear in the hearts of American sailors in the Pacific during World War II. Kamikazes were the last-ditch effort by the Japanese to defeat the numerically superior  Americans. John Wukovits writes about one such attack on the destroyer USS Laffey in Hell from the Heavens.

Here is a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher:

Hell from the Heavens CoverOn April 16, 1945, the crewmen of the USS Laffey were battle hardened and prepared. They had engaged in combat off the Normandy coast in June 1944. They had been involved in three prior assaults of enemy positions in the Pacific—at Leyte and Lingayen in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima. They had seen kamikazes purposely crash into other destroyers and cruisers in their unit and had seen firsthand the bloody results of those crazed tactics. But nothing could have prepared the crew for this moment—an eighty-minute ordeal in which the single small ship was targeted by no fewer than twenty-two Japanese suicide aircraft.

By the time the unprecedented attack on the Laffey was finished, thirty-two sailors lay dead, more than seventy were wounded, and the ship was grievously damaged. Although she lay shrouded in smoke and fire for hours, the Laffey somehow survived, and the gutted American warship limped from Okinawa’s shore for home, where the ship and crew would be feted as heroes.

Simply put, this is an excellent history of a famous ship from World War II. Wukovits uses many primary sources, including personal interviews and crew members’ memoirs, to tell the riveting story of the USS Laffey (232 pages with 16 pages of black and white photographs). He writes the story in a very compelling manner.

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The Traitor’s Story by Kevin Wignall

a street in Lausanne, Switzerland

Long time readers of this blog, all three of you at this point, will know that I am a fan of Kevin Wignall.  I believe I have read all of his books and even interviewed him a few times.  So I am always excited when he has a new novel out.  And this time I am going to review it in a timely manner.

I was able to get a review copy of The Traitor’s Story from NetGalley.  And not surprisingly given that it is Wignall, it turned out to be an intelligent espionage thriller that explores the complex nature of loyalty, patriotism and love amongst other things. Although, it is not really a typical thriller until the later part of the book. But at the heart of the story is the challenge and impact of secrets which grows out of espionage and an attempt to escape from it.

I enjoyed the way Wignall builds the characters, particularly Finn, by alternating between the present and the past.  Finn is trying to put the past behind him, ironically by writing about the ancient past, but finds it is both a part of who he has become and something that can’t so easily be left behind.

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The Traitor's Story by Kevin Wignall Book Cover The Traitor's Story by Kevin Wignall
Kevin Wignall
Thriller & Suspense
Thomas & Mercer
June 21, 2016
ebook
384
Amazon

The Castaway’s War: One Man’s Battle against Imperial Japan by Stephen Harding

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Most people interested in World War II know that the U.S. Navy spent a majority of its time and assets fighting in the Pacific Theater. It was mainly the Navy’s show and it paid a dear price in its fight against the Japanese armed forces. An example of this price is highlighted in Stephen Harding’s The Castaway’s War, where he describes one American’s fight against the Japanese after his ship is sunk.

Here is an overview from the book’s publisher:

In the early hours of July 5, 1943, the destroyer USS Strong was hit by a Japanese torpedo. The powerful weapon broke the destroyer’s back, killed dozens of sailors, and sparked raging fires. While accompanying ships were able to take off most of Strong‘s surviving crew members, scores went into the ocean as the once-proud warship sank beneath the waves—and a young officer’s harrowing story of survival began.

Lieutenant Hugh Barr Miller, a prewar football star at the University of Alabama, went into the water as the vessel sank. Severely injured, Miller and several others survived three days at sea and eventually landed on a Japanese-occupied island. The survivors found fresh water and a few coconuts, but Miller, suffering from internal injuries and believing he was on the verge of death, ordered the others to go on without him. They reluctantly did so, believing, as Miller did, that he would be dead within hours.

But Miller didn’t die, and his health improved enough for him to begin searching for food. He also found the enemy—Japanese forces patrolling the island. Miller was determined to survive, and so launched a one-man war against the island’s occupiers.

As with many descriptions of  heroic feats, Harding first describes Miller’s years before the Navy, including his time at Alabama and his married life. Harding then tells how Miller was involved in the fitting out and launching of the USS Strong and the ship’s actions around the Solomon Islands.

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A Tale of Two Citizens by Elyce Wakerman

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Elyce Wakerman’s A Tale of Two Citizens is an immigrant story based in the thirties and forties that rings true in today’s over-heated immigrant debate.

Harry Himelbaum is a twenty year old Polish immigrant who must tell a lie (that he is not married) in order to enter the United States. The lie eats at him, but he tells it to start a new life away from the oppression in Europe. Nearly a decade after telling the lie, Harry is forced to address the lie when he applies for visa papers for his wife and son.

The man who discovers the lie and tries to deport Harry is Will Brown, a federal government attorney who zealously pursues immigrants who lied to immigrate to the U.S. Will tries to uphold the nation’s laws and keep his country “pure.” Unbeknownst to Will, his wife Barbara has some affection for Harry from previous encounters in New York City – this complicates things.

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The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich by Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney

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Most people know who Hitler was, but many do not know the man who gave Hitler some of his worst ideas. The “ideologue/philosopher” behind Hitler was Alfred Rosenberg, an Estonian who embraced the Aryan race myth. Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney have written a book, The Devil’s Diary, about Rosenberg and the search for his diary following its disappearance after World War II.

Here is a brief summary of the book:

A groundbreaking World War II narrative wrapped in a riveting detective story, The Devil’s Diary investigates the disappearance of a private diary penned by one of Adolf Hitler’s top aides—Alfred Rosenberg, his “chief philosopher”—and mines its long-hidden pages to deliver a fresh, eye-opening account of the Nazi rise to power and the genesis of the Holocaust.

An influential figure in Adolf Hitler’s early inner circle from the start, Alfred Rosenberg made his name spreading toxic ideas about the Jews throughout Germany. By the dawn of the Third Reich, he had published a bestselling masterwork that was a touchstone of Nazi thinking.

His diary was discovered hidden in a Bavarian castle at war’s end—five hundred pages providing a harrowing glimpse into the mind of a man whose ideas set the stage for the Holocaust. Prosecutors examined it during the Nuremberg war crimes trial, but after Rosenberg was convicted, sentenced, and executed, it mysteriously vanished.

New York Times bestselling author Robert K. Wittman, who as an FBI agent and then a private consultant specialized in recovering artifacts of historic significance, first learned of the diary in 2001, when the chief archivist for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum contacted him to say that someone was trying to sell it for upwards of a million dollars. The phone call sparked a decade-long hunt that took them on a twisting path involving a pair of octogenarian secretaries, an eccentric professor, and an opportunistic trash-picker. From the crusading Nuremberg prosecutor who smuggled the diary out of Germany to the man who finally turned it over, everyone had reasons for hiding the truth.

The book almost should be considered two separate books – one that covers the search and discovery of the diary and the other that chronicles Rosenberg – but both are melded together perfectly. The first part highlights Robert Kempner, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who fled Nazi Germany before the war because of his Jewish heritage. The authors describe how Kempner took many primary documents, including Rosenberg’s diary, during the preparation for the trials.

The second part is about Rosenberg and his life in the Nazi Party. It covers everything from Rosenberg’s witness and participation in the Beer Hall Putsch to his supervision of the pillaging of European Jews’ (and others’) possessions, including priceless art.

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