May 16, 2012

Review: The Berlin Boxing Club

By: Robert Sharenow
Published: April 2011 by HarperCollins
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
First Reviewed: June 2011
Buy: Barnes & Noble//Books-A-Million//Amazon//Book Depository
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Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

Fourteen-year-old Karl Stern has never thought of himself as a Jew. But to the bullies at his school in Naziera Berlin, it doesn't matter that Karl has never set foot in a synagogue or that his family doesn't practice religion. Demoralized by relentless attacks on a heritage he doesn't accept as his own, Karl longs to prove his worth to everyone around him.
So when Max Schmeling, champion boxer and German national hero, makes a deal with Karl's father to give Karl boxing lessons, Karl sees it as the perfect chance to reinvent himself. A skilled cartoonist, Karl has never had an interest in boxing, but as Max becomes the mentor Karl never had, Karl soon finds both his boxing skills and his art flourishing.
But when Nazi violence against Jews escalates, Karl must take on a new role: protector of his family. Karl longs to ask his new mentor for help, but with Max's fame growing, he is forced to associate with Hitler and other Nazi elites, leaving Karl to wonder where his hero's sympathies truly lie. Can Karl balance his dream of boxing greatness with his obligation to keep his family out of harm's way?

Rating: 4/5

This is why book world is starting to annoy me: They advertise commercial books over and over and over again to the point where it'll gain 3,000+ reads in, like, a month, but then they neglect books like this, which really deserve a read, that aren't necessarily books people would pick up at first glance, and only gain barely 14 ratings on Goodreads after a month or so release. Published by a major publisher, mind you, also. Really? Really? Anyway, while I'm still undecided on whether or not I'm five-starring this or four-starring it because of certain issues, this was a fantastic read and I wish it would be marketed more.

Nazi Germany, of course, but instead of the usual setting we get with historical fiction during WWII, we got a "normal" setting. There's a school, an apartment, a boxing gym, etc. Of course we're taken through a change, but there are no camps or whatnot. It displayed Nazi Germany from a different angle, which I liked.

I really enjoyed following Karl through his story. He was a strong, natural lead that went through a complete transformation from beginning to end. That's always great to witness. He had his strengths, his weaknesses, his weaknesses that became strengths, and realistic, teenage thoughts. The minor characters were also just as great, all different and all very, very believable. Beyond believable, actually. I really loved their developed personalities and the beauty that some possessed. That beauty was shown through so many different ways. So kudos to Sharenow.

The one thing that bothered me a bit was some of the characters' actions. I can't really explain what I mean without spoilers, but in lamen's terms, there were some scenes where the characters would do something unrealistic (not to say that the characters themselves were unrealistic, because that was not the case) I'm probably just confusing you all, so I'll just stop there. Overall, great characterization.

For the most part, I thought Sharenow's writing was very good. Not great, but very good. He has my favorite skill, which is forcing the reader to keep turning the page. I didn't want to put it down, and that was largely because of the writing. He captured Karl's voice and I watched it grow as Karl aged a few years. I can see a ton of potential in Sharenow.

My problems, though, were mainly with the fact that I could tell he either a) was newer to writing fiction or b) had an editor who didn't have too good of an eye. I opted for a mix of both once I finished. I found many errors that most definitely should have been caught, and if I see "quickly" one more time...ugh! This is one of those manuscripts that I'd love to have in document format so that I could use the search and find to see how many times he used that word, as well as, "instinctively," and a crap load of other adverbs. Also, the dialogue felt a bit too narrative-y at times. Not always, and often Sharenow actually did an amazing job with it, but sometimes it was just too narrative-y and over-the-top.

And...this is why I'm torn on a four/five-star rating. The moral of this story is so strong, the messages in this story are so strong, the transformation that Karl goes through has such a strong purpose that it's almost hard not to want to give this five stars. But ultimately I had more issues than I wanted to. For one, I felt the short-yet-long-lived romance between Karl and a neighbor wasn't nearly as touching or developed as I would have liked. It is not a commercial YA romance, I assure you. Had to set that straight. But it serves a distinct purpose in this story, and I don't feel as though it were used as much as it should have been.

Also, Karl's a boxer and a cartoonist--we get to see many of his drawings throughout, which I loved--but then those seem to taper off. Throughout most of this, we see the world through a boxer and cartoonist's eye, which was one of the strongest stylistic choices of this, but then toward the end, Sharenow almost got rid of that. I wanted to see more consistency.

Speaking of consistency, there were many other inconsistencies in this. From age of characters to some of the timing to the pacing and more. And...gosh darnit, I had another thing on my mental checklist to talk about, but I forgot. Oh! Okay, I remember. There were a few scenes in this that I felt were unnecessary. They took away from the story. I think that some could have been cut down to show more development in other areas of Karl's life so that we could have seen more besides the boxing and wouldn't have been told so much.

Nitpicks aside, this was a fantastic read. I couldn't put it down. There are a ton of WWII Nazi books, yeah? But this one takes it from a new angle and shows us another famous figure during that time. It's that horrendous time through completely different eyes. Even though I highly recommend this book, I've finally settled on four stars. I don't love it any less than some of my five-star reads, but I just think some of the plot was too much to take on in such a short amount of time and I needed more consistency to really, really connect with this on the fictional story level, not the real history level like I automatically did before reading. Still, though, this is fantastic and I highly recommend it, especially if you're looking for a WWII through different eyes.

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