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Random Acts of Heroic Love - Danny Scheinmann

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Author: Danny Scheinmann / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 January 2008 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd / Title: Random Acts of Heroic Love / ISBN 13: 9780552774222 / ISBN 10: 0552774222

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      12.07.2012 17:40
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      A tale of despair entertwined with a tale of hope.

      Despite the title, I suspect that there is very little that is random about this novel, since Scheinmann spent six years of his life honing this, his first published work. Perhaps the time scale is a consequence of the semi-autobiographical nature of the central stories: one tale is based on Scheinmann's personal history; the other is a fabrication loosely based on an epic journey made by his grandfather during the First World War. Both are tales of love and loss, obsession and despair. Whether or not it has helped Scheinmann to achieve any kind of catharsis, writing the novel has led to a very positive reaction from readers and reviewers alike. 'Random Acts of Heroic Love' made it into the Richard and Judy Book Club and gained fulsome praise from reviewers, although, pleasingly, the editors have decided to allow the book to speak for itself, instead of slathering it with sound-bites. So what did I think?

      -- First impressions / hopes --

      The title intrigued me, as did the image on the front cover: a man, dressed for icy weather, strides through a white landscape; superimposed over this is the image of a young woman's face, eyes averted from the traveller, her visage somehow expressing stoic sadness. The man's garb and setting led me to believe that this was part of the story of the soldier who, having survived fighting in the Great War, struggles for three years through the Siberian wilderness to join his childhood sweetheart.

      The premise is an exciting one, suggesting an action packed journey and, hopefully, a romantic resolution. What will happen to Moritz along the way? And, if he is able to survive the journey, will his young love still be waiting? I anticipated dramatic plotlines and wickedly hoped for a sad ending, to see how the author would handle it. (Happy endings are rather easy and, dare I say it, often a bit dull; I sometimes prefer a bit of well-managed anguish. Although it obviously wouldn't work at the end of, say, anything by Jane Austen, or a Mills and Boon.) Moritz would be battle toughened, weary, but a hero to root for.

      I found it slightly surprising then that the novel opens with another story. In 1992, a young man called Leo Deakin discovers that his girlfriend has died in a bus accident while they were travelling together in a foreign country. Although he does not initially remember what has happened, or even where he is, once the pieces begin to come together Leo is absorbed by his feelings of guilt. As time passes, Leo refuses to move on. He becomes obsessed by capturing random acts of love and tears pages from library books in order to create a journal of 'love'. He dives into unsuitable, meaningless relationships and the world of physics, befriending a lecturer with unusual views on the nature of love. In short, he becomes stuck, fixed in place by a random tragic event.

      Perhaps he sounds like a sympathetic character - I'm sure that he is a sympathetic character - yet somehow, although Leo's position is worse than Moritz's (in the sense that Eleni is dead), I found Leo intensely irritating. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to draw solace from his friends or family, Leo loses interest in his post graduate work and, in a memorably mad moment, begins to pair up leaves. Perhaps my response reflects little more than my own lack of experience in this kind of grief; I've lost people I'm close to, but never a partner. My impatience with Leo is quite possibly a result of my own personality, but I really couldn't warm to him as a character. The notebook he keeps (which is presented in appropriately doodled-up form between chapters) is a mish mash of pretentious quotations and notes about how animals mate, as if the elaborate dating rituals of birds or elephants can teach him how to bear his loss.

      It was quite a relief to join Moritz, who speaks in the first person and quickly establishes a compelling narrative:

      'Ah there you are. I'm glad. I've got a story to tell you. Come closer, that's it, right up to my bed. Don't be shy. Bring the chair right up. It's all right, I'm not contagious. You can rest your feet on it if you like.'

      Although he is speaking to his young son, the bed bound and dying old man captures the reader easily when he asks us to 'imagine a fast clean river flowing through a dense forest'. Unlike Leo, who is absorbed by death, Moritz celebrates life, even as he waits to die, hunched in a dirty trench and sheltered by only a sandbag. He recalls the taste of fresh bread, the feel of fire-warmed underwear against his skin, and the scrunch of autumn leaves underfoot. Moritz launches into his personal tale and enthrals both his son, who never speaks, and the reader. His story contains loss, danger and humour, especially when he is forced to team up with a man named Kiraly, a bitter, complaining man (who reminds me of Leo, if he were given the opportunity to be cruel). Despite their differences, Kiraly and Moritz are able to work together and their final parting contains a genuine sadness. I enjoyed reading about their interaction and felt that it was consistently believable.

      In contrast, Leo decides to 'let [his friends] rot' when they try to challenge his bathing in guilt and sadness. He moves into lodgings and begins an affair with a woman who ultimately revolts him. Can Leo ever let go of Eleni? Will he ever want to? These are the questions I should have wanted to ask, but I didn't, because I didn't believe that Leo's grief was about Eleni. Leo's grief is about Leo. Leo has been bereaved. Leo is alone. There is very little sense of Eleni in the novel; she is simply the justification for Leo's indulgent retreat from the world. This may be overly harsh, but this is how I felt when I was reading these sections of the story. In fact, I found that I was skimming these sections impatiently so that I could return to the 'main' storyline with Moritz.

      -- Linking the stories --

      The blurb promises that the 'hidden connections' between the two men and their stories will be revealed in a 'stunning climax'. However, the connection between the two is easy enough to guess quite early on, and certainly didn't stun me - or any of the other readers in my book group. In fact, the ending as a whole, while parts of it are certainly very moving, is largely predictable. I actually found myself wishing that a certain event wouldn't happen as I felt that it would render the conclusion of Leo's story too facile - but it did, and it was. After struggling to cope with his feelings throughout the novel, Leo's final situation allows him to almost sidestep the issue of grieving. I cannot say more without revealing the ending, but I do wish that Scheinmann had not taken what I cannot help thinking of as the easy way out, for him as a writer and Leo as a character. My response to the conclusion of Moritz's story is very similar; after a hiccup, there is a fairly predictable ending, although I suppose that if he is being true to history, I cannot really blame the writer! Suffice it to say that, despite the undercurrent of loss and longing that inevitably pervades the novel, the endings are suitably packaged to please most audiences.

      -- Conclusions --

      The tale of Moritz Daniecki's trek through Russia to join his childhood sweetheart was genuinely engaging and well told. The sections describing Leo's bereavement were less interesting and frequently resulted in me feeling irritated by Leo's apparent intention to wrap himself in grief forever. Although this is a personal response and would not necessarily be endured by a more patient reader, I am aware that many readers have felt similarly, or at the very least that the story about Moritz does not need to be twinned with Leo's tale. It might have resulted in a shorter novel, but the storyline is 'weighty' enough to stand alone.

      Overall, I think this would make an excellent read for all the romantics out there; grim realists (such as myself) may be slightly disappointed. However, despite finding Leo so irritating, I feel that the novel was well worth reading - especially if you skim over Leo's sections!

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        05.06.2010 13:48
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        A beautiful merging of historical and scientific elements

        Let's be honest, 'Random Acts of Heroic Love' seems like a bit of a soppy title. On seeing the front cover my assumption was that it would be a collection of short, sickly-sweet love stories. Thankfully, the title doesn't do the book any justice, as it turned out to be insightful, profound and incredibly moving.

        The novel begins on a bombshell in 1992 as we discover that Leo Deakin, a student, is in a hospital bed in South America. As he gradually regains consciousness, a doctor tells him what he already instinctively knows - his girlfriend Eleni is dead. Presumably there has been some sort of terrible accident but Leo cannot fully remember the events due to severe concussion. As his memories eventually sharpen he comes to the conclusion that he is to blame for Eleni's death, and so begins the long journey through grief, love, despair and guilt.

        Back in 1917, however, Moritz Daniecki is stuck in a Siberian prisoner-of-war camp, thousands of miles away from his beloved Lotte, who is living in their hometown of Ulanow in Austria. Moritz' desire to be reunited with Lotte is so strong that he soon decides to escape back to Austria... on foot. Even of Moritz survives the death-defying journey, will Lotte still be there waiting for him at the end of it?

        I know that there are many books which use a historical storyline as a parallel to a modern-day storyline, but this one is truly remarkable. For one thing, I was deeply impressed at how deeply emotional the book was for one so dominated by male characters. I don't mean that men aren't emotional! It's just that in my experience, the most emotional books are typically driven by women; for example, Little Women or Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This book, however, proves that deep emotion is not necessarily confined to the realms of femininity.

        An aspect of the book which really captures its beauty is the use of excerpts from Leo's notebook at the beginning of most chapters. After being advised to collect inspirational facts or quotes, Leo makes a notebook filled with incredible stories from the animal world. For example, an eel is born in the Sargasso Sea but is carried away for thousands of miles by a great current. After several years, however, it develops a strong desire to go back to its birthplace and reproduce. For around 6 months they will travel through ponds and streams, not feeding until they are back in the Sargasso Sea. Once they are there, they spawn and then die of exhaustion, their life's work complete. These stories often draw parallels with the stories of Leo and Moritz, and therefore lend colour to their journeys. The excerpts are in Leo's handwriting and are often accompanied by photos of different animals mating. This sounds a bit disgusting but as someone who is easily disgusted I can tell you that they were actually very sweet photos which made me smile. The excerpts serve to emphasise the theme of love further throughout the book.

        The storyline involving Moritz is clearly well-researched as well as being absolutely amazing. It turns out that the character was based on Scheinmanns' own grandfather who walked from Siberia to Ulanow to find his childhood sweetheart. It took him 3 years. The fact that this is based on a true story makes the whole account even more extraordinary, and reinforces the sense of this book being Scheinmann's labour of love; it says in the acknowledgements that it took him 6 years to write.

        Leo's storyline, whilst being initially the most exciting, becomes slightly shallow after a while as his mind becomes so twisted with grief that his friends begin to think him insane. However the story does develop well as it leads us through Leo's emotional journey with just as much skill as Moritz's physical journey.

        The impression I've probably given you of this book is that it's a bit soppy and wet. But throughout the book there are dotted some wonderfully humorous incidents which often made me chuckle. I think that this really helped to round off the serious edges of the book so that it became less heavy, and therefore a more enjoyable read overall.

        Another thing which impressed me was the use of physics to aid the storyline. As a student, Leo meets an Italian lecturer (Roberto) whose subject is the Philosophy of Physics. Struggling to find a meaning for his life, Leo has many conversations with Roberto, and discovers some beautiful parallels between the human world and the world of particles. The scientific parts were explained in a very easy way, although I found Roberto to be a fairly implausible character. On the other hand, developing Roberto's character would have probably detracted from the main plot and so this isn't such a major niggle.

        I found this book incredibly addictive. Each chapter is about 12 pages long, and every 3 or chapters the narrative will switch from Leo's perspective to Moritz' perspective (although the book is told in the 3rd person throughout). The end of each chapter always seemed to leave me hanging and I, desperate for more, was simply unable to stop! The climactic ending was very dramatic, meaning that I read about 10 chapters at once because I wanted so much to know what happened! There are 32 chapters in total, and around 400 pages, which is a pretty manageable size.

        I really believe that this debut novel by Danny Scheinmann is something of a stroke of genius. Towards the middle of the book I began to wonder if all the incidents mentioned were really relevant, but the ending really pulls together all the loose ends for a very satisfying conclusion. This is an incredibly beautiful book which I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone.

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          12.11.2009 13:22
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          Not brilliant, but worth a read

          Leo Deakin wakes up in hospital in South America to find out that his beloved girlfriend, Eleni, died in the same coach crash that incapacitated him. Devastated, he arranges for her body to be flown home to her native Greece, but struggles to come to terms with his loss, pushing away his parents and friends. 75 years earlier, Moritz Daniecki is somewhere in Siberia, after surviving the Great War, and is deserately trying to make his way to his home in Poland to find the love of his life, Lotte. Will Leo eventually get over the grief of Eleni's death? Will Moritz ever be reunited with his love? And could there be a link between Leo and Moritz?

          Romance is very far from being my favourite genre; usually I avoid it at all costs. In this case, the book was given to me and I thought it looked interesting, particularly the Great War angle. One advantage of the book is that it is two stories in one, told in alternate sections rather than separately, and they complement each other in that when one is becoming tedious, the other is just becoming interesting. I found Leo's story initially very moving and compelling, but then he moves into a period of complete introspection when he becomes obsessed with the idea of Eleni's spirit still being near him, which became incredibly heavy-going. Moritz's story, on the other hand, started out very dully - descriptions of war aren't something I enjoy reading about - but his spirit and determination to make it home are catching and I found his story improved for reading.

          The two stories are told differently, in that Leo's story is told in the third person, whereas Moritz's is told in the first. That was initially quite off-putting - I didn't understand who Moritz was talking to at first, although it eventually becomes clear it is his son. It is also quite hard to switch between the two stories - there would usually be a couple of chapters of one story before switching to the next. However, it is just a matter of becoming used to the format and after a few chapters, I didn't have any real problem in following it. And the chapters are a good length - nice and short.

          It is hard to say whether I liked or disliked either character, because I didn't really feel a lot for either of them. Initially, I felt sorry for Leo, but his personality is such that, once his initial grief is over, it is hard to really warm to him. He is obviously going through some sort of breakdown, but I don't think the author portrayed him quite well enough, otherwise I'm sure I would have had a lot more sympathy. As it is, Leo becomes annoying at times, forever spouting on about physics and animals mating (he's doing a PhD on ants, the interest in physics is completely random), and I just wanted him to move on. I think everyone has the right to time to grieve and self-introspection is some people's way of coping (mine, in fact) - it just doesn't make for very interesting reading.

          I don't think we get to know Moritz all that well at all, because although he is telling his own story, he doesn't give away an awful lot of information about how he is feeling - it is more about his experiences. Some of these experiences are horrific and very interesting to read - I know very little about Eastern Europe's role in the First World War. The only real insight into his soul is through his love for Lotte, which knows no limits, but I found that a little bit too much at times. He barely knew the girl before leaving to fight, yet after three years is still harbouring the fantasy that he loves her. Some may find this romantic and appealing; I'm way too cynical and think that he was merely in love with the idea of someone he thought he knew.

          It is clear from the start (and indeed says on the back of the book) that there is somehow a link between Danny's and Moritz's story, although it is never made clear exactly what this connection is. I think this was a clever idea, because it really did maintain my interest through the parts of the book that were a bit more hard-going than others. However, towards the end, I do think it was dragged out a little too far and I just wished the author would get on with things. It is partially based on a true story, so I think that the author probably took it very personally and wrote with more care than was perhaps necessary. It may suit some, but I prefer a little more snappiness in my literature.

          The standard of writing is very good, even in the odd slow section, it flows very well. And the author has clearly put a huge amount of effort into research, particularly in Moritz's story - in an afterward, Danny Scheinmann says that he spent six years researching and writing the book. That does make it stand out from your average romance and is probably why it made it onto Richard and Judy's 2008 booklist. And apart from the initial changes in tempo between Leo's story and Moritz's narrative, I liked the way that the author made an effort to give the stories their own identity. If it had all been Mortiz's narrative, I think that would have been too much, but interspersed with Leo's story, it is a lot easier to read.

          On the whole, I enjoyed this book, but didn't find it particularly outstanding. I have to admit that is partly because romance is really not my preferred genre; someone who is a real romantic at heart will probably enjoy it much more. As it is, it is a book I don't regret reading, but probably wouldn't bother reading again. Recommended for the romantics amongst you, or possibly those interested in the First World War.

          The book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Transworld Publishers, it has 384 pages: ISBN: 9780552774222

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            01.09.2009 15:16
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            A modern story of loss interspersed with a more interesting look at WWI.

            To be honest I was a bit put off by the title of this book and I'm not sure why I picked it up as love stories are really not my thing. The synopsis on the back of the book was more interesting than the title however, as at least part of it was about WWI.

            The book follows the journeys of two men - both physical and emotional - separated by 75 years. Moritz is a young man who has been drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI and somehow survives. He ends up in a POW camp in Siberia after being captured by the Russians. Moritz is determined to escape in order to return to his sweetheart, Lotte, who is waiting for him in their village in what is now Poland.

            Leo is a young man who wakes up in a hospital in South America in 1992 after an accident to find that his girlfriend, Eleni, is dead. The book follows his emotional journey and the ways in which he tries to recover from his loss.

            The book begins with Leo and the immediate aftermath of the accident then switches to Moritz which is a bit disconcerting. The way in which Scheinmann switches to Moritz is quite confusing as the narrator is at first unnamed. He moves from third person narration with Leo to first person narration with Moritz telling his story.

            I didn't really like the switch in style, although I found the first person narrative of Moritz's story more compelling. We don't know at first that it's Moritz speaking and we are not sure who he is speaking to. Also I wasn't sure why the story was switching to Moritz at all as there seemed to be no connection with Leo. This is, of course, explained in the course of the story and perhaps I was being slightly dimwitted in not spotting it sooner.

            There didn't seem to be any pattern in Schienmann's switches from Leo to Moritz which could get a bit irritating. He did like to leave Moritz's story hanging at dramatic or tense moments but other than that it seemed to be a random process.

            I found Leo a fairly convincing character in his grief over the loss of his girlfriend but he was also slightly irritating and whiney. The character of Moritz was more interesting and altogether more pragmatic. The story of Moritz's journey from Siberia back to Poland was more dramatic as there was so much more going on. In comparison Leo was a self-pitying wimp who spent the whole book navel-gazing and sighing after his perfect lost love.

            I also found Moritz's story more interesting due to the research Schienmann had obviously undertaken on WWI. The sheer number of young men killed by the arrogance of their officers is staggering and the waste of life shocking. After only six weeks the Austro-Hungarians had already lost 500,000 men. The fact that Schienmann looks at WWI from a different perspective - that of young man from the Austro-Hungarian side - makes it more interesting as well.

            Through Moritz we also see the brutality of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the sheer confusion of the civil war that arose from it. No-one knows who they are fighting and who is Red and who is White.

            In Leo's story we see him moving from theory to theory in an effort to console himself. Leo's part of the book has fragments from his journal with pictures of animals as he tries to convince himself that Eleni isn't really gone.

            This was overall quite a sad book in many ways as you feel desperately sad for Moritz after all that he witnesses and goes through only to have his life end as it does. I felt sorry for Leo to an extent but just found him quite annoying after a while. I think this book would have been better without his part of the story to be honest.

            I enjoyed the parts of this book that featured Moritz a lot more than the Leo parts. I found it interesting that Schienmann had based Moritz's walk back to Lotte on a similar journey carried out by his grandfather, who spent three years walking back from Siberia to his sweetheart.

            This book is one supposedly about love but the women who are the focus of both men's affections are always distant and unattainable. Lotte becomes a vague memory for Moritz and acts as an incentive but little else is known of her. Eleni, of course, is dead from the start of the book and is idolised by Leo.

            I think this is more a book about survival and personal strength - Moritz survives for Lotte but he needed to have strength of will to do so. Leo eventually overcomes his grief and starts to live again, acknowledging that Eleni would want him to be happy.

            I enjoyed this book but felt that more of Moritz and less of Leo would have been preferable. Even better, Schienmann could do away with whiney Leo altogether! I would recommend this as an interesting read for the parts about WWI as those were the parts I enjoyed.

            This review is also on Ciao.co.uk under my username.

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              16.02.2009 13:39
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              A history of WW1, Siberian POW camps and love and tribulation

              I've just finished reading this book and I ultimately really enjoyed it. As you may infer from my terminology I didn't get "into" it to start with.

              The book follows the stories of Moritz Daniecki and Leo Deakin, although they are told 75 years apart.

              I wasn't quite sure where the title fitted into the story to start with, but at its most basic level it is the story of one mans quest to hold on to his first true love through trial and tribulation and another's quest to learn to let go after his love dies.

              Moritz Daniecki is from Ulanow in the old Austrian Hungarian Empire. He survived the horrors of the Great War by holding on to the memory of his first love Lotte. The story charts his trials through the war and his subsequent incarceration in a POW camp in Eastern Siberia. All the time he is at war and held prisoner he writes to Lotte - the letters are not posted - but he carries them all with him. Moritz seizes an opportunity to escape the POW camp and then spends 3 years walking across Siberia, evading capture and carrying the few meagre belongings he has, as well as the 100's of letters he has written.

              Leo Deakin is a University student, researching the behaviour of ants. He has fallen in love with Eleni and they are inseparable. They go off travelling in South America and one fateful day Eleni is killed when the bus they are travelling in is involved in a crash with a lorry. Leo is beside himself with grief, blaming himself for her death and he called her back to sit at the front of the bus - a position they never usually take as the safest place is in the middle. He returns to Greece with Eleni's body and then has to adjust to life back in the UK without the love of his life. The story chronicles his trials in trying to adjust to living without his one true love. He alienates his friends and ends up on the verge of a breakdown. He goes and stays with his parents and slowly realises through various happenings that he can let go of Eleni and still be happy.

              Going back to Moritz's story - he finally arrives back in Ulanow only to find that Lotte has moved to Vienna. He eventually tracks her down after sending handfuls of the letters every day to her and they do get married. Moritz survives until the 1930's and his story is actually a narration told to his son Fischel, as Moritz lies dying, Fischel is sent to England on the last boat to leave Germany just before the outbreak of the Second World War along with a trunk containing all the letters Moritz wrote to Lotte.

              The final strand to the story is that Fischel is actually Leo's father and he has kept this secret since 1939. It is his actions is sorting and translating Moritz's letters that makes Leo realise that life can go on.

              This is only my brief synopsis of the book - it is more complex and interwoven, but to give the whole story would defeat the object of a review.

              This was a well written book that did hold my attention once I had got going with it.

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