"Beside a Burning Sea"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew SEP 3, 2008)
There is no finding
Like the first feeling of love.
Crickets feast on song.
John Shors' Beside a Burning Sea chronicles eighteen days in the lives of nine characters who survive the sinking of the American hospital ship Benevolence in the Pacific during World War II.
Captain Joshua Collins, four of the ship's company, and a stowaway Fijian boy escape the bombed and broken ship, swimming for the closest island. Josh fears his Naval nurse wife sank under the waves, but discovers her on the beach, exhausted but unhurt. Isabelle Collins and her sister and fellow R.N., Annie, gained the shore with the help of an injured Japanese prisoner of war, Akira. The survivors' landing point of white beach, protected harbor, abundant fishing, bananas, and coconuts has not yet become a military base for either warring side. But that could change on a dime, especially since one of the nine is a traitor sending covert radio messages to a convoy and someone code-named "Edo." For safety, the little contingent must retreat from the prime beach site to hidden caves toward the rear of the island, and a tsunami strikes on the day they have to row their one lifeboat and the supplies it contains to their new location. But as daunting as nature can be, they have more to fear from the murderer among them and the enemy cruisers that could sweep into the harbor and send armed troops ashore.
Shors' aim in Beside a Burning Sea is not so much to tell a story of betrayal and violence, although both invade and destroy irreparably. Instead, he sets up a kind of social experiment, an isolated microcosm: he fashions a castaway cocoon so love can metamorphose. The Collins' married love gets a chance to regain strength and a future. The sisters' love deepens as they finally share confidances. The boy, Ratu, who misses his own father terribly, touchingly bonds with crewman Jake. And Annie and Akira cross the lines of race and wartime enmity. Akira, who witnessed atrocities committed by his Japanese brethren in Nanking and is especially haunted by one little Chinese girl's torture and death he did not stop, is a sensitive and educated soul who teaches Annie about haiku. Annie is drawn to him as she never could be to her stolid Ted at home. The novel's open sentimentality as it considers the permutations of love elicits emotion from the reader but in a rather scripted way.
One is almost always aware that Beside a Burning Sea is the imagining of a storyteller. Authenticity is sacrificed to an idealized romanticism in places and the unrestrained cruelty of one-dimensional villainy in others. Whether the characters are appealing or repulsive -- and they are one or the other, with little or no gray median -- they seldom break out of a reflexive "once upon a time" superficiality. The author supplies biographical background for the nine survivors, but, arguably not enough...particularly for the more minor characters, Scarlet and Nathan. And the moral certitude of Beside a Burning Sea lends the novel a reassuring sensibility on a basic level, but also leaves it open to a charge of being simplistically written. Sometimes this novel seems more for young readers than for adults.
Furthermore, this castaway tale reveals the identity of the traitor early, eliminating potential suspense. But Shors does build creative tension in his plot at strategic times to spur on the reader.
Overall, Shors' second novel (his first was the enthusiastically received) should satisfy readers who desire a historical novel steeped in emotion and fundamental character types and motivations and who don't mind lightness on details and realism. If it weren't for the pesky war, the charmingly lyrical interludes, romantic and otherwise, on this South Pacific island would be positively paradisiacal.
Lovely haiku epigraphs for each chapter enhance reading enjoyment, and one can see why, originally, the book was entitled The Poet Makers (although, perhaps it ought to have been The Poetry Makers?). This review quoted one chapter's poem above. Here is another to conclude:
I will give up my life
So my second heart endures.
Spring survives winter.
- Amazon readers rating: from 61 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Beside a Burning Sea at the author's website(back to top)
"Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal"
(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie DEC 19, 2004)
"The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere,
they're in each other all along."
"The mausoleum possessed the grace of a woman. Its heavenly arches were her eyes and its domes her upturned breasts. The minarets might be her jeweled fingers, while the white marble was surely the perfection of her face."
- John Shors
Arjumand Banu Begam, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, was married to Shah Jehan, the fifth mughal emperor of Hindustan, in 1612. Although this was the emperor's second marriage, it was a real love-match and Mumtaz was her husband's inseparable comrade, advisor, companion on his journeys and military expeditions, and the inspiration for his acts of charity and good deeds. Both the Muslim and Hindu populations thrived under the emperor's reign. Mumtaz bore him fourteen children, and died giving birth to their last child in 1630, (only three years after her husband's accession to the throne). Shah Jehan was overcome by grief and was determined to perpetuate his wife's memory for immortality. He wanted "to build a monument fit for his love. He called upon the Empire's greatest architect, a young man who could transform jade into flowers, marble into paradise." This was the genesis of the Taj Mahal.
The late empress, beloved by her people, inspired all the realm's subjects to join in the emperor's dedication to build this supulcher. After twenty-two years of intense labor, and the combined effort of over twenty-thousand workmen and master craftsmen, the complex was finally completed in 1648 on the banks on the River Yamuna in Agra, the capital of mughal monarchs.
In Beneath A Marble Sky, author John Shors tells the beautiful story of the people most involved in the building of the Taj Mahal, and the complex circumstances surrounding their lives and the history of the region at this time. Jahanara, the intelligent and beautiful daughter of the Mumtaz and Shah, perhaps the child most like her mother, narrates this tale. Although Jahanara has many siblings, the primary plot here, other than the building of the monument, deals with the destructive rivalry between her two brothers, Dara, the oldest son and heir to the throne, a scholar, and the youngest, Aurangzeban, an ambitious warrior who covets his brother's position. This strife could cause civil war and threaten the Islamic Enlightenment, which prevailed during this period. The other important storyline deals with Jahanara's relationship with the architect, Isa. The princess was married to a brutal, coarse man who mistreated her. When her father asks her to become the court liaison to Isa and the construction of the Taj Majal, Jahanara is not only swept up in the creativity and responsibility of the project, but learns to love a man for the first time.
Mr. Shor spends much time developing his characters, and does so effectively. Through them the reader is able to picture life and the political chaos of 17th century imperial Hindustan. His writing is often elegant and flows at a good pace. Although the author's historical detail is accurate, the narrative is mostly about the personal relationships between characters, their loves, betrayal, adventures and war. He does describe the building of the Taj Majal, but I, personally, would have appreciated more detail about the construction and final product - the magnificent mausoleum. Overall, this is a fascinating novel of historical fiction and I highly recommend it.
- Amazon readers rating: from 161 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Beneath a Marble Sky at the author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal (2004)
- Beside a Burning Sea (2008)
- Dragon House (2009)
- The Wishing Trees (2010)
- Cross Currents (2011)
- Temple of a Thousand Faces (February 2013)
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- The official website for John Shors
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About the Author:
John Shors graduated from Colorado College in 1991, where he studied creative writing and after graduation pursued his dream of living in Asia. He was an English teacher in Kyoto, Japan for three years. He then backpacked across Asia, visiting ten countries in the next few years. Shors ate, played, and exchanged ideas with locals across the continent, becoming acquainted with customs and cultures that on the surface seemed so contrary to Western philosophies. Highlights from his journey included climbing the Himalayas of Nepal and exploring the monuments of India.
Upon returning to America, Shors became a newspaper reporter in his home state of Iowa. Within two years he won three statewide awards in journalism, including one for best investigative reporting. He and his wife then moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he began a career as a public relations executive, working for clients ranging from Fortune 100 companies to local nonprofits.
Shors currently lives in Boulder, Colorador with his wife and two children.