Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: The Far Side of the Sky

Summary:  November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht—the Nazis unleash a night of terror for Jews all across Germany. Meanwhile, the Japanese Imperial Army rampages through China and tightens its stranglehold on Shanghai, a city that becomes the last haven for thousands of desperate European Jews.

Dr. Franz Adler, a renowned surgeon, is swept up in the wave of anti-Semitic violence and flees to Shanghai with his daughter. At a refugee hospital, Franz meets an enigmatic nurse, Soon Yi “Sunny” Mah. The chemistry between them is intense and immediate, but Sunny’s life is shattered when a drunken Japanese sailor murders her father.

The danger escalates for Shanghai’s Jews as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. Facing starvation and disease, Franz struggles to keep the refugee hospital open and protect his family from a terrible fate.

The Far Side of the Sky focuses on a short but extraordinary period of Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish history when cultures converged and heroic sacrifices were part of the everyday quest for survival. -- Forge

It's been awhile since I've read a big historical fiction book, but after seeing some reviews for THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY by Daniel Kalla, I knew this was exactly what I needed to break up all of my "beach books." I enjoy historical fiction and especially books that take place around World War II, and THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY promised to offer a unique perspective on this war. However, what actually convinced me to read this novel was how much book bloggers were raving about it!

THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY was a fabulous book and fans of historical fiction won't want to miss it. I admit that I've read quite a few books that take place during World War II, but none was like this one. THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY tells the story of Franz, a well-known Austrian doctor who also happened to be a Jew. After Kristallnacht, he decides that he has to leave his beloved country to protect himself and his daughter. After learning that most places are no longer taking Jews, he flees to Shanghai with his daughter and sister-in-law. Once he is there, he establishes himself in the Jewish community and he is able to use his skills as a doctor to provide for his family.

While working in a refugee hospital, Franz meets Sunny a half-Chinese nurse and falls in love with her. Of course, the path to true love is never smooth, and Franz and Sunny find that they have their fair share of obstacles -- both are involved with other people, they come from entirely different backgrounds including their race and religion, and Sunny is still dealing with the aftermath of her father's murder by a Japanese soldier. As the war escalates and Franz struggles to keep the hospital open to refugees, he also finds that he has to make some difficult choices to save himself and his family.

THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY is a beautifully written novel that was a sheer pleasure to read. Mr. Kalla is a new author to me, and I couldn't have been more impressed. His characters were fully developed (and very likable) but he also managed to have just enough action and excitement to make the book a page-turner. In addition, Mr. Kalla is an emergency room physician and it was evident throughout the novel. The scenes where Franz was performing surgeries were extremely detailed and very realistic -- so much so that I shuddered a few times.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY was that I managed to learn so much while reading this novel. (Most of you know that I prefer to learn through my fictional reading!) Maybe I've been living under a rock, but I had no idea that Jews fled to Shanghai during the war. And not just a few Jews. Over twenty thousand of them were able to find safety in this very diverse city. In fact, Shanghai harbored more German and Austrian Jewish refugees than any other city, and I have to ask, "Why didn't I ever learn this either in school or my reading?"

I was extremely impressed with the research that Mr. Kalla conducted while writing this novel. I thought he did an outstanding job of incorporating the fact with the fictional aspects of his story. He even included an author's note at the back of the book with some additional explanations. Furthermore, when he did take some liberties with facts, he explained (and justified) them. As a reader who wasn't at all knowledgeable about these events, I really appreciated this.

And while it's obvious that I loved the historical aspects of THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how entertaining this novel was. I loved Franz and Sunny as well as many of the secondary characters, and I thought the author developed them very well. These characters experience so much pain and had little, if any, control over their lives. And yet, they were so strong and always seemed to do the "right" thing. As I read this novel, my heart broke for them over and over again; and I just hoped that they could find some peace and happiness.

What I don't feel like I've expressed in this review is how intriguing I found this book to be. I actually read it in a day and a half, and it's over 450 pages! The pace of this story was very fast and so much action was happening to the characters that it read like a much shorter book. The characters faced a great deal of adversity, but they also found themselves in a number of ethical and moral dilemmas. At one point in the novel, I thought, "How much can these people take?" However, I kept turning those pages, seriously hoping that the ultimate message would be one of strength and hope!

THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY would make an excellent book club selection. I wasn't able to find specific questions for the book, but that shouldn't deter you from picking it. The book covers a lot of ground; and as a result, there is much to discuss. Some of the themes that you might want to explore include war, loss, grief, love, parent/child relationships, sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption. All of the issues that I mentioned are universal and sure to generate a lot of discussion.

I adored THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY and highly recommend it for fans of historical fiction. This is one book that you don't want to miss.

Thanks to Diane Saarinen for providing a review copy of this novel.


bermudaonion said...

You know historical fiction generally doesn't appeal to me, but this one sure does! I love that time period and that setting! Great review!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I like to learn through my fiction too! And while I've read literally hundreds of books about WWII, I've never heard about this migration either. This book sounds wonderful!

Serena said...

Anna loved this one as well. I'll probably borrow her copy and give it a go

Howard Sherman said...

I put The Far Side of the Sky on my TBR list for three reasons:

1) I'm Jewish and can relate to this book in s very personal, very real way as I know people who survived the holocaust.

2) As a fan of historical fiction in this flavor

3) It sounds like an INCREDIBLE story.

Karlie said...

Wow! I had no idea that there were Jewish people that fleed there. This sounds like a great book.

Karlie said...

Wow! I had no idea that there were Jewish people that fleed there. This sounds like a great book.

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I *knew* you would love this book. I'm still raving about it, weeks after reading it.

Beth(bookaholicmom) said...

I have never heard about Jews fleeing to Shanghai either. I will add this book to my wish list. Your review has me wanting to read this soon!

Anna said...

Glad to see you loved this one as much as I did! I learned a lot from it as well.

Beth F said...

I must, must read this. This explores a piece of history I knew nothing about and I love learning through fiction. Between you and Jenn (bookshelves), I know I'd like this.

Kim@Time2Read said...

You are not alone under that rock! I didn't know about the shanghai connection either, I also learn history through reading fiction. And now I can say I learn history through blog reading! I'll be adding this one to my Tbr. Thanks for the review!