Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Book description

Snippets from “About the Book” by Amazon:

Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man’s incredible courage and resilience during one of history’s darkest hours.

Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager but his days of innocence are numbered. He joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps. Then, at the tender age of eighteen, he is recruited to become the personal driver of Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy. With the opportunity to spy for the Allies, he endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation bolstered by his love for Anna, a beautiful widow six years her senior, and the dream of the life they will share.

Full description in the Amazon webpage.

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Strange the Dreamer

Strange the Dreamer is a beautifully written and well thought of book. Its narrative was brilliantly constructed such that I was able to empathise with the characters, both main and secondary, as the story progressed. And, this is the first time where I truly felt that there is no real villain in the story; rather, I see all the competing forces as a result of the past – as if all the characters are victims of monsters and horrors of the past. As tidbits of information slowly unfold in the narrative, actions and mentality of the characters felt more realistic and reasonable. There is so much pain in it (in various forms), it bounces off the pages.

But of course, there was hope. That hope is in the form of Lazlo Strange with the help of Sarai. Lazlo is such a lovable character. I am unsure what superlative to use but suffice to say he is now on my list of favorite male characters in any book I have read. The first few chapters were enough for me to relate to him.

Lazlo owned nothing, not one single thing, but from the first, the stories felt like his own hoard of gold.

He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about strange Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.

He was like a caged bird waiting for his moment to fly.

These visions of freedom and plenty bewitched him. Certainly, they distracted from spiritual contemplation, but in the same way that the sight of a shooting star distracts from the ache of an empty belly. They marked his first consideration that there might be other ways of living than the one he knew. Better, sweeter ways.

Throughout the book, I could not really help but wish him well… and I was happy and inspired when he really took the initiative to be part of his dreams even if the odds or the situation were against him. The wisdom from his head Librarian spoke volumes and I am glad Lazlo was able to find the courage to really speak up when it mattered.

“Do you want to end your days a half-blind troglodyte hobbling through the bowels of the library?” the old man demanded. “Get out of doors, Strange. Breathe air, see things. A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon, not just from reading in dim light.”

“Life won’t just happen to you, boy,” he said. “You have to happen to it. Remember: The spirit grows sluggish when you neglect the passions.”

I am trying my best to not include spoilers. So, to put it simply, Lazlo’s growth throughout the book, including the people he meets along the way – Sarai, Erik-Fane, Azareen, etc -, produced a very heartwarming story.

My favorite scene remains Lazlo and Sarai’s dreamworld sequence, which is best read to fully appreciate how beautifully written and magical it was.

Honestly, I am curious how the 2nd book would go. But as it is, this was an amazing read. The words were able to capture the emotions – pain, happiness, sadness, longing – and magic of the various moments and experiences. The setting was also something new, which was a good exercise for the imagination. I would gladly read this again.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper told the story of Arthur Pepper, a 69-year old man, who on the death anniversary of his wife discovers a charm bracelet hidden in one of her boots. This eventually led him to step out of his comfort zone and step into new adventures, with some bordering on almost unbelievable. It was a break from a routine he has made for himself since his wife died. But, it was something he pushed through since:

He was experiencing emotions he didn’t know existed. He had begun to discover people and animals that excited him. He wasn’t ready to rot away in his armchair, mourning his wife and waiting for his children to call, and filling his days with plant-watering and TV. And so even if the emotion he felt for this De Chauffant bloke was apprehension and jealousy, it made him feel alive. He needed a jolt to his system. Something to shake him out of the cozy prison he had created for himself. In a home where memories of Miriam were still fresh, he needed something else.

It helped him move on and live his life again.

At the heart of this book are two key concepts: the past and family. Through Arthur’s adventures, he was able to discover more about his wife and the life she lived before they met. More important, the journey helped Arthur realize that “he was stronger and had more depth than he knew and he liked these new discoveries about himself.” Moreover, it allowed him to open up once again to his kids and strangers who would eventually become friends.

I particularly loved how this book was able to come full circle – weaving together the past, present and future wherein Arthur Pepper came out stronger from it. The book was an amazing journey and made extra special since Arthur Pepper was a very amiable character. He was such a nice man and someone who dearly loved his wife.

My key takeaway is how the past has power only up to the extent we give it as mentioned in my favorite quote from the book:

Arthur thought about how it was possible for memories to shift and change with time. To be forgotten and resumed, to be enhanced or darkened as the mind and mood commanded.

It can consume a person with regret –

He regretted it now. They should have visited new places together, had new experiences when the kids got older. They should have grasped the opportunity to do what they wanted to do and expand their horizons, especially now he knew that Miriam had lived a fuller, more exciting life before they met. He had stifled her. He had been so set in his ways.

Yet, the regrets and what have beens should never overwrite the wonderful memories created –

Memories gradually began to emerge in Arthur’s mind, like friends appearing out of the mist. His curiosity about the stories behind the charms was beginning to fade. They were almost like fairy stories, things that had happened in a time past. He was pleased that his head was becoming full of his own stories again, ones about his wife and children.

And, sometimes the past may best be left behind –

You can’t stop people doing what they want to do if they really want to do it. Perhaps she thought that her life before you was no longer relevant. Sometimes when you’ve lived a chapter of your life, you don’t want to look back.

Other characters in this book in Mike, Bernadette, Nathan, Lucy and Dan were also adequately fleshed out and had their own stories to tell. I had a soft spot for Nathan’s story so I am glad for his turnaround as the book ended.

I loved this book and would gladly read this again. I have new found understanding for those who maintain charm bracelets; I did not realize how much stories those hold.

A Boy’s Life

A Boy’s Life is Cory Mackenson’s re-telling of his experiences as a 12-year old boy in Zephyr, his hometown. Zephyr is just like any ordinary town but made rich and magical by its eccentric set of residents and the powerful mind of a boy.

The story follows a murder mystery, a rarity in the quiet town, embellished with snippets of happenings around the town. The murder mystery in itself was a journey throughout, with lots of hidden clues and dead ends. It was also satisfactorily closed at the end of the book.

But, for me, the strength of this book lies on how it was able to discuss and cover a lot of heavy topics like bullying, bribery, death, depression, racial discrimination, animal rights, modernization (e.g., effects of supermarket in small towns), grief, etc. There was just a lot of meat in this book. Sometimes, I put it down just to give me time to digest and process its contents.

The book also draws a lot of power from Cory’s imagination as a boy, wherein admittedly the world is a lot different and contains just a bit of magic.

Personally, I feel like this book is one of the greatest books I have read. Admittedly, I did not know about it but was only intrigued as the cover said that it was a winner of the World Fantasy Award and Bram Stoker Award. After reading it, it deserved the accolades. Definitely a great read.

Thank you Robert McCammon for this wonderful gift to the world.

Favorite quotes:

On growing up –

“They may look grown-up,” she continued, “but it’s a disguise. It’s just the clay of time. Men and women are still children deep in their hearts. They still would like to jump and play, but that heavy clay won’t let them. They’d like to shake off every chain the world’s put on them, take off their watches and neckties and Sunday shoes and return naked to the swimming hole, if just for one day. They’d like to feel free, and know that there’s a momma and daddy at home who’ll take care of things and love them no matter what. Even behind the face of the meanest man in the world is a scared little boy trying to wedge himself into a corner where he can’t be hurt.”

“All life isn’t hearts and flowers.” Dad put down his paper. “I wish it was, God knows I do. But life is just as much pain and mess as it is joy and order. Probably a lot more mess than order, too. I guess when you make yourself realize that, you” — he smiled faintly, with his sad eyes, and looked at me — “start growin’ up.”

Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Hold on to being a boy as long as you can, because once you lose that magic, you’re always begging to find it again.”

On writing or being a storyteller –

THERE IS NOTHING MORE frightening or exciting than a blank piece of paper. Frightening because you’re on your own, leaving dark tracks across that snowy plain, and exciting because no one knows your destination but yourself, and even you can’t say exactly where you’ll end up.

“Seems to me a writer gets to hold a lot of keys,” she said. “Gets to visit a lot of worlds and live in a lot of skins. Seems to me a writer has a chance to live forever, if he’s good and if he’s lucky.

On moving on and finding peace –

“You know, no mistake in the world can’t be fixed. All it takes is wantin’ to fix it. Sometimes it’s hard, though. Sometimes it hurts to fix a mistake, but you have to do it no matter what.”

“I don’t think anybody gives you peace, Dad. I think you have to fight for it, whether you want to or not.

“Readin’. Writin’. Thinkin’. Those are the rungs on the ladder that lead up and out. Not whinin’ and takin’ and bein’ a mind-chained slave.

On death –

I remember hearing this somewhere: when an old man dies, a library burns down. xxx I wondered about this as I walked amid the graves. How many stories were here, buried and forgotten? How many old burned libraries, how many young ones that had been building their volumes year by year? And all those stories, lost.

The One and Only Ivan

This was a quick but a great read. The story is told from the point of view of Ivan, a Silverback Gorilla, who was captured as a baby, raised as a human then finds himself in a cage in a mall along the highway when he got too big. He shares the mall with other exotic animals, including the wise Stella, an elephant, and Bob, the stray dog. Then Ruby, a juvenile elephant, comes along.

I know it is hard to put into words how animals really think, since we do not really know how or what they think about. But, for me, the book was able to adequately put into words what they may be thinking. It is as if the author was able to empathize with Ivan, Stella, Bob and Ruby.

The glass says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be. – Ivan

A lot of insights, which is only possible through observation, was also present in the book.

I’ve learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans. – Ivan

Gorillas aren’t chatty, like humans, prone to gossip and bad jokes. – Ivan

Humans in the story were depicted in various ways – insensitive, brutal or caring, which I think is the simplest classification possible. Ivan was lucky to have Julia and her father George as keepers in the mall since they were instrumental leading to the story's conclusion. Julia, in particular, was key. The world needs more of her really.

Additional quotes I liked from the book are:

  • This one talks about focusing on yourself and not what others think –

Humans don’t always seem to recognize what I’ve drawn. They squint, cock their heads, murmur. I’ll draw a banana, a perfectly lovely banana, and they’ll say, “It’s a yellow airplane!” or “It’s a duck without wings!” That’s all right. I’m not drawing for them. I’m drawing for me.

  • Another one is on memories, as mentioned by Stella the Elephant –

“There’s a difference,” Stella says gently, “between ‘can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember.’” “That’s true,” I admit. Not remembering can be difficult, but I’ve had a lot of time to work on it. “Memories are precious,” Stella adds. “They help tell us who we are.

Overall, I liked this book. Simple but a lot of heart in its pages.

I am still on the fence as to zoos over natural habitat but reading a lot about poaching and illegal hunting makes me think twice. But, I know animals need protection from humans since they are defenseless against bullets and greed, among others.

The Inexplicable Logic of my Life

This is a beautiful book. Honestly, I could probably rank this as one of the best books I have ever read. It has a lot of heart and soul in it. For me, it is able to maturely discuss a lot of sensitive matters, such as the different kinds of loving, grieving, death, and family.

It followed the growth of Salvador from boyhood to manhood through his thoughts. He was blessed with a wonderful support group – Sam, Fito, Mima, Vicente and Marcos – but not an ordinary life. (Though if I think about it, is there really an ordinary life?) Each of the main characters have their own challenges and it is so easy to warm up to them and cheer them on.

There is so much to pick up from this book that I know when I read it again, I would have another favorite quote depending on what I am going through at that point. But, for now, my favorite would have to be this line:

I finally understood something about life and its inexplicable logic. I’d wanted to be certain of everything, and life was never going to give me any certitude. – Salvador

This book also has Vicente Silva, whom I could say now as one of my favorite characters ever. He, for me, can be likened to Albus Dumbledore or Atticus Finch, particularly in his role in guiding Salvador, Sam and Fito in this inexplicable thing called life.

My dad nodded. “Can I just say one thing, Salvador?” “Sure.” “There’s nothing ordinary about you. Nothing ordinary at all.”

Mima, Salvador's grandmother, was also quite special. It was through her that I learned about the beautiful phrase "Dejate Querer", which loosely translates to "let yourself be loved".

Again, such a beautiful book. Thank you Benjamin Alire Saenz for this gift.

Some other quotes from the book:

On anger –

“Okay, maybe I can get this right. Anger is an emotion. But there’s always something behind anger. Something stronger. You know what that is?” “Is that a trick question?” “It comes from fear, son. That’s where it comes from. All you have to do is figure out what you’re afraid of.”

And one more thing: I didn’t want to admit that I had anger living somewhere inside me. But that anger didn’t make me a “bad boy.” All it did was make me human. There was nothing wrong with getting angry. It was what you did with that anger that mattered. – Salvador

On loving –

“I know you don’t. You don’t think she really loves Sam—but she does. Everybody doesn’t love in the same way, Salvie. And just because she doesn’t love Sam the way you or I would like her to doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her daughter. It’s very difficult being a single mom.” – Vicente

On being one's self –

“I never wanted you to be anything, Sally. I’ve always just wanted you to be you.” – Sam

On living –

When is the right time for anything? Who knows? Living is an art, not a science. – Vicente

“Do you remember what you told me?” “I remember,” she said. “I told you that there were only two things you needed to learn in life. You needed to learn how to forgive. And you needed to learn how to be happy.” – Mima

“I know you sometimes think that people are like books. But our lives don’t have neat logical plots, and we don’t always say beautiful, intelligent things like the characters in a novel. That’s not the way life is. And we’re not like letters—” – Vicente

Highways are nice and paved, and they have signs telling you which way to go. Life isn’t like that at all.