8 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow

Title: The Berlin Boxing Club

Author: Robert Sharenow

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication date: April 2011
Hardcover: 416 pages

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?

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Why did I read this book: I have been in the mood for a good historical, and as a boxing fan, I couldn’t pass The Berlin Boxing Club up. (Not to mention, this book has been received to broad and emphatic acclaim!)

Review:

Karl Stern is an artist, an older brother, a dreamer, and a Jew. In 1935 Berlin, Karl’s Jewishness is a curse, especially since his family is not religious, and he does not feel connection with his heritage in any way. As a blonde, fair-featured teen, he can even pass for Aryan – at least Karl thinks he’s evaded suspicion until he’s cornered by the “Wolf Pack” (a group of Nazi Youth members at Karl’s school) who decide to mete out punishment on the Juden boy. Karl takes a cruel beating, and though bruised and bloodied he rushes to help his father at the family art gallery for a the latest opening, knowing how dire the family’s monetary situation is. At the gala, an extraordinary thing happens, as Karl stands in shock when Max Schmeling, German boxing heavyweight hero, walks into his father’s gallery – and somehow knows Karl’s father. Even more astounding is the fact that Karl catches Max’s eye, and in return for a painting, the legendary boxer offers to give Karl lessons at his training club. What boy – especially a skinny, beat-up boy like Karl – could resist?

As Karl begins his rigorous training routine at the Berlin Boxing Club with his hero, the world seems to deteriorate around him. His school becomes increasingly hostile towards the few Jewish gentiles enrolled. The Nazi Youth gradually begin to take over the school, assimilating even his close friends. And, as Germany comes to a critical point with the passing of the Nuremburg Laws and poised on the precipice of calamitous change, Karl must use his newfound strength and decide who, and what, to believe in.

Based on the devastating days leading up to the brutal devastation of Krystallnact, The Berlin Boxing Club is a beautiful, harrowing beast of a novel. A sports book, a coming of age story, and a historical recounting of the early days leading to one of the greatest atrocities in human history, Mr. Sharenow’s historical fiction novel told through the eyes of young Karl Stern is an incisive, powerful read. Based on the events in Germany from the early to mid 1930s and centered with the figure of Max Schmelling, The Berlin Boxing Club is both historically accurate and manages to be emotionally resonant without being emotionally exploitative – and in a novel dealing with the events leading up to the Holocaust, this is no small feat.

Even more importantly, The Berlin Boxing Club is never preachy nor didactic – its protagonist, Karl, is conflicted and openly admits, repeatedly, how he would have loved to join the Nazi Youth, how he feels rage and exclusion when his friends start to wear the uniform and how much he just wishes he could simply join in the movement. He despairs that his younger sister and father look traditionally Jewish with dark curly hair, hooked noses, and large lips. In this sense, I loved that Mr. Sharenow never takes the easy way out and lets his protagonist off the hook. Instead of Karl turning into a champion for his fellow Jewish classmates and the weak, Karl only gradually comes to the realization that his hero Max might not be perfect. I loved the tension and internal conflict that Karl faces at each turn in the novel – from his own fervent and conflicted desires to distance himself from his Jewish birthright, with his frustrations with his pacifist father and depressed mother, to his gradual disenchantment with his boxing hero. In fact, ALL of the characters in The Berlin Boxing Club are fantastically detailed and conflicted. Among my favorites are Karl’s family (his father, mother, and younger sister), as well as Karl’s stuttering cornerman from the boxing club, with the big heart and the keen eye. Of course, there’s also Max Schmeling himself, and I think Mr. Sharenow does an admirable job of humanizing a larger than life character that never joined the Nazi party – but never stood actively against it, either.

And on top of all the writing accolades in terms of character and plot, The Berlin Boxing Club is also a love letter to the sweet science and the greats that fought in the ring in the 1930s, just as it is an illustrated novel with an Al Jaffe-esque flair. As a boxing fan, I still don’t know too much about the sport in its earlier days and it was fascinating to learn about the great Jewish boxers in America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I loved the training sequences that Karl would engage in, the fights he finally gets to fight, his hopes and struggles and dreams. In short, I loved this book.

Powerful without being exploitative, never descending into triteness or slipping into emotional manipulative territory, The Berlin Boxing Club is one hell of a novel. Absolutely recommended, and one of my favorite, notable reads of the year.

Notable Quotes/Parts: Thanks to Harper Teen’s Browse Inside feature, you can read a good preview of the novel HERE or by using the widget below:



Rating: 8 – Excellent, and a notable read of 2011

 

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, nook, google, kobo & sony

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18 Comments

  • Jodie
    August 24, 2011 at 3:28 am

    Thea you just keep getting more awesome. Boxing fan! I totally want to get boxing media recs from you and see whether you’ve read what I’ve read. This one goes on the list.

  • Estara
    August 24, 2011 at 4:02 am

    Okay, that does sound cool. So this is semi-fiction? I mean Max Schmeling existed (we even saw him on TV after the war years), but Karl Stern and his situation are fictitious? Interesting.

    This reminds me to tell you – or should that be Ana who is the female-pilots-of-WWII nut, if I remember correctly – that Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity will be released both in the US and the UK by Egmont next year. I saw jpgs of the cover art (which I believe is not final so she hasn’t uploaded them officially anywhere) both editions are striking, but I like the UK version better (the author wrote the back cover copy for the UK version and I think it’s a good introduction of the concept).

  • Thea
    August 24, 2011 at 4:31 am

    Jodi – Aww thanks!!! I *heart* boxing in any media, and would be happy to make recommendations! After you give this one a try, and if you’re in the mood for something different I’d say read Jacqueline Carey’s Santa Olivia! Urban fantasy, Carey’s beautiful writing, and yes, boxing. Think Rocky IV with Apollo, and then Rocky fighting Drago to avenge his friend.

    Estara – Yes, this one is historical fiction based on the figure of Max Schmeling. There are stories that he may have saved two Jewish children following kristallnacht, and I believe that inspired this story. I really hope you read it – it’s fantastic.

    And THANK YOU for the news of Code Name Verity!!! Ana was the one that reviewed Flygirls but I am a fan too! I’ll definitely be checking it out.

  • Jesper
    August 24, 2011 at 6:29 am

    I like boxing stories. This story seems to be much more than just about boxing. Interesting angle. Just got on my reading list πŸ™‚

  • Estara
    August 24, 2011 at 6:30 am

    ^^ Considering both of you enjoy high drama and strong female heroines and WWII as a historical background, you won’t be disappointed.

    Actually, checking on Amazon, the North American edition is not by Egmont Press (where Code Name Verity will be one of the three launch titles of their new YA imprint, Electric Monkey – although… really, these girls are in their early 20s so it depends on how you defined young adult…) but by Doubleday Canada.

    The UK gets a Paperback and North America a Hardcover, according to Amazon.

  • Man of la Book
    August 24, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Sounds like a very interesting book, definitely going on my TBR list.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

  • SaraO @ TheLibrarianReads
    August 24, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Thank you for posting this! I work at a religious school and this would be perfect for some of my boys.

  • April Books&Wine
    August 24, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Yay! I’m so pumped about having obtained this during a book signing! I’m willing to bet you’ve already read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, but if not, there’s a character who is a boxer in it. It’s pretty awesome and I highly recommend it.

  • Teacher
    September 19, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    I thought this was a great read too. It’s on my short-list of must reads for 2011 . Your review was great and hit everything that makes this book special.

  • DogEar
    January 5, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I also enjoyed this book very much. I’ve short-listed it for my system’s mock Printz award and I’m looking forward to hearing the group’s thoughts on it. Great summary.

  • Jojo
    October 7, 2012 at 4:35 am

    I loved this book, it was an amazing book that had my emotions going full out on the whole time I read the story, I could feel the story from Karl’s eyes, as cheesy as it sounds I felt moved by this story, I very much enjoyed it. I even loved how it wasn’t just about the nazi era in Germany and boxing, despite being a boxer myself and a fan. But I loved the soft, cute, and warming moments with Karl stern and Greta houser. However in the end I dislike how Karl and Greta have a crappy ending about their relationship, I would’ve loved to have a ending with Karl and greta at least contacting eachother some how, it bugged me A LOT. And the fact that Karl’s father (sig stern) gets injured and then the family basically ends torn apart, I’m extremely disappointed amongst how the story ended. The middle of the book I was just in love with the story, but then my feelings towards it went downhill, but I still live the book, 5 stars definatly, and garunteed best book I’ve read among many other I’ve read. But like I said, I Hate the cliff hanger! I need a second book, please? Someone should help me contact Robert sharenow and help me ask if he is going to write a second, although its unlikely, it’s worth s try, I need a sequel, I LOVED the story! Thanks sharenow

  • bb25
    October 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    8) i loved this book

  • Akintomide
    December 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Thanks to eveyone who has so far sent in their golf retosgratiins and donations for the raffle. If you would like to support our Memorial Golf Day in honour of my son Karl it would be most appreciated.The training camp this year held at Lake Mead was a great success with 5 out of the 12 skiers going on to represent GB at the World Championships. These events cannot happen without support.If you would like to join us for a good day out or the Evening Dinner please call or txt +44 7958 605335Forever Ski The Dream

  • nelson
    January 22, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    this was so great! I’m working on a speech about a book of my choice and I needed to Summarize the Berlin Boxing Club. This helped me sooooo much!

  • matt bradley
    April 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm

    This was a great book I recommend it but just be aware that there are very “mature” moments that get a little awkward

  • rose bustos
    September 25, 2015 at 11:51 am

    This book is very good and enjoyable but it does say some very mature words that aren’t for children

  • Anonymous
    March 7, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    I agree!

  • Anonymous
    August 13, 2017 at 9:51 am

    Karl and everybody in that book are real this is a true story

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