Beside a Burning Sea

Beside a Burning Sea

by John Shors

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From the author of Beneath a Marble Sky comes an inspiring new novel of a man and a woman from different worlds whose love is put to the ultimate test as they struggle to survive an extraordinary set of circumstances.

View our feature on John Shors' Beside a Burning Sea.

One moment, the World War II hospital ship Benevolence is patrolling the South Pacific on a mission of mercy—to save wounded American soldiers. The next, Benevolence is split in two by a torpedo, killing almost everyone on board. A small band of survivors, including an injured Japanese soldier and a young American nurse whom he saves from drowning, makes it to the deserted shore of a nearby island.

Akira has suffered five years of bloodshed and horror fighting for the Japanese empire. Now, surrounded by enemies he is supposed to hate, he instead finds solace in their company—and rediscovers his love of poetry. While sharing the mystery and beauty of this passion with Annie, the captivating but tormented woman he rescued, Akira grapples with the pain of his past while helping Annie uncover the promise of her future. Meanwhile, the remaining castaways endure a world not of their making—a world as barbaric as it is beautiful, as hateful as it is loving.

With the blend of epic storytelling and emotional intensity that distinguishes him as a unique talent, John Shors reveals a powerful story of redemption focusing on unlikely lovers, heroes and villains, and war-torn countries—all, in their own ways, fighting to survive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440630071
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/02/2008
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 839,586
File size: 583 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Shors traveled extensively throughout Asia after graduating from Colorado College in 1991, living for several years in Japan, where he taught English, and then trekking across the continent, visiting ten countries and climbing the Himalayas. More recently, Mr. Shors worked as a newspaper reporter in his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa, before entering public relations and moving to Boulder, Colorado. Beneath a Marble Sky is his first novel.


Boulder, Colorado

Date of Birth:

March 4, 1969

Place of Birth:

Des Moines, Iowa


B.A. in English, Colorado College, 1991

Reading Group Guide


When my first novel, Beneath a Marble Sky, was published as a paperback in 2006, I decided that I wanted to try and give something back to readers. After all, if people were going to buy my novel, tell their friends about it, and lend me their support, the least I could do was to be supportive in return. I opted to place a letter at the end of Beneath a Marble Sky that invited book clubs to invite me to participate in their discussions. I included my e-mail address. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how my proposal would be received, though I had a hunch that readers wished for such interaction.

I was fortunate in that over the following few months, Newsweek magazine and the CBS Evening News did stories on my book club program. And as a result of this publicity, I was inundated with requests to talk with book clubs. In fact, over the course of the ensuing year, I spoke (usually via speakerphone) with more than one thousand book clubs. Most of these clubs were based in the United States, though I spoke with groups from Canada to Zambia. And while most clubs were fairly traditional in their approach, others decided to wear saris, cook Indian food, hire henna painters—thereby getting into the spirit of Beneath a Marble Sky.

Chatting with more than one thousand book clubs gave me a true appreciation for how carefully people read books. Time and time again, readers greatly impressed me with their insightful questions. As a result, I learned to never take the reader for granted. If people are going to invest hard-earned money into a book, and then take the time to read it, they deserve to experience something memorable.

I’d like to end this note by expressing my profound gratitude to readers. Thank you for all of your support and encouragement.



Set in the backdrop of World War II, Beside a Burning Sea follows a man and woman from separate worlds, as the barbarity of war looms in the distance.

One moment, the hospital ship Benevolence glides through the Pacific. In the next, it is engulfed in chaos, split in two by a torpedo. A small group of survivors makes it to the deserted shore of a nearby island, including Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier who saves a young nurse from death.

Akira has spent five years surrounded by blood and horror. Now, surrounded by those he is supposed to hate, he instead finds solace in their company. Sharing the mystery and beauty of his favorite poems with the beautiful American woman he has rescued, he watches as the other survivors confront their own passions and demons. In their midst, a secret held by one of the castaways may determine whether any of them will ever see their homelands again.



John Shors traveled extensively throughout Asia after graduating from Colorado College in 1991. More recently, he worked in his hometown as a newspaper reporter in his hometown, Des Moines, Iowa, before entering public relations and moving to Boulder, Colorado.



During your conversations with more than one thousand book clubs, what have been some of your more memorable moments?

The conversations were fantastic, of course. But even more so have been the letters and e-mails that I received afterward. These contained wonderful messages, as well as photos of the groups (oftentimes with members wearing saris and covered in henna paintings).

What’s something that you learned about book clubs during your many visits with them?

I was quite surprised at the diversity of the book clubs I encountered. Not in terms of race or religion or political orientation, but in their approach to discussing Beneath a Marble Sky. For instance, some book clubs would take a rather studious approach, and come prepared with a variety of insightful questions. Other groups would be well into their third round of margaritas. I was never really sure what kind of group I’d be talking with.

Why did you decide to write a novel set in World War II?

I’ve always been fascinated by World War II. And I’ve felt that in the West we’ve tended to focus on the war in Europe. Having lived in Asia for several years, I’ve been intrigued by the intricacies of the war in that part of the world.

Was it hard to go from writing about the Taj Mahal in Beneath a Marble Sky to World War II in Beside a Burning Sea?

I think that transitioning from one book to another is a difficult process. After spending such a long time writing Beneath a Marble Sky, I became quite connected to its characters. And having to create a batch of new characters for Beside a Burning Sea felt somewhat like learning a new language. The voices in both novels are fairly unique, I believe, and giving life to such voices was a time-consuming process.

Your first novel took place in India, and your second novel occurred in the South Pacific. Why do you like to write novels set overseas?

I was lucky enough to grow up reading, and have consumed a couple of books a week for most of my life. I have always most enjoyed novels that took me to a new place, and that taught me something. Such novels prompted me to explore much of the world, in fact. And after visiting so many wonderful places, I decided that I wanted to share such locales with my readers.

To that end, where will your next novel be set?

It will take place in modern-day Saigon, and will involve a variety of characters from different parts of the world. The story is quite close to my heart, and I’m excited to see it unfold.

What did you most enjoy about writing Beside a Burning Sea?

The challenge of creating a setting—of fashioning a time and place of my own design—is immensely gratifying to me. I want my readers to feel as if they’ve visited the environs that I describe, and giving my novels the necessary richness to achieve that goal is a rewarding challenge. Of course, I also greatly enjoy the process of creating the overall story, and then of sitting down and actually bringing that story to life.

For you, what is the hardest thing about writing?

I tend to edit my novels a lot, as I want them to be as good as possible. And sometimes it takes a great deal of willpower to try and focus on rereading my novel for, say, the twentieth time. I console myself with the knowledge that each edit makes the book better, but that doesn’t make each edit any easier.

Poetry plays a prominent role in Beside a Burning Sea. Why did you decide to add this element to your novel?

Having lived in Japan, I’ve long had an appreciation for the simple beauty of haikus. Starting each chapter of Beside a Burning Sea with a haiku (written from Akira’s perspective) was fun for me as a writer. I hope readers enjoy these musings. Additionally, I felt that poetry—or a love of such inward exploration—was a thread that could be used to connect Annie and Akira.

How much of your success do you attribute to the book club program that you launched with your first novel?

Publishing is an extremely competitive industry. A great number of good books exist, but many simply don’t sell. The fact thatBeneath a Marble Sky is available in fifteen languages and is selling briskly throughout much of the world is due in large part to all of the wonderful book clubs that I spoke with. These clubs (as well as individual readers, of course) have been tremendously supportive of me, and have really championed my novel.

Are there any other thoughts that you’d like to share with your readers?

Simply that I continue to be grateful for their support.


  • Discuss the significance of the title Beside a Burning Sea. Additionally, the original title was The Poet Makers. Which title do you prefer? Why?
  • Did Beside a Burning Sea provide you with a better understanding of World War II? If so, how?
  • Would you consider Beside a Burning Sea an antiwar novel?
  • Who was your favorite character and why?
  • Are you interested in learning more about haikus?
  • Is this a novel that would lend itself well to the silver screen? If so, who would you imagine playing the various characters?
  • Are you more interested in reading a novel set somewhere you haven’t been, or would you prefer a locale that you’re familiar with?
  • What do you think was the biggest challenge that John Shors faced when writing Beside a Burning Sea?
  • Did you connect more with Annie or Isabelle? Why?
  • Of the three main relationships in the novel (Annie and Akira, Isabelle and Joshua, Ratu and Jake), which did you most enjoy? For what reasons?
  • How effective was the character Roger as a villain?
  • What was your favorite scene within Beside a Burning Sea?

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Beside a Burning Sea 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! It was a quick read for me-- I just had to know what happened to the characters! Shors does a great job of keeping the pace moving from the very start. It's also interesting to contemplate the ways in which war changes people, some for better, others for the worse and how this book illustrates those points. Keep the tissues handy, as this book will have you crying.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1942, the hospital ship Benevolence with five hundred filled patients¿ beds is sailing the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands bringing medical assistance to sailors from both sides of the conflict as required by international law. Suddenly a Japanese torpedo hits the vessel ripping the boat in half. In the next instant, as the Benevolence is engulfed in chaos, most of the crew and patients die, but a few manage to make it to a nearby island.--------------- The survivors include the captain, his spouse a nurse, another officer, an engineer, a Japanese prisoner of war, a second nurse, and a Fijian stowaway. Each has felt the horrors of war, but now must find a way to cooperate if they are to survive. However one of them is a traitor who has their own agenda defining survival quite differently than the others.------------------- The key to this powerful WW II survivor drama is each cast member is fully developed with differing personalities and backgrounds this leads to unexpected relationships as race, culture, social class, and war are explored through the interactions of the characters. Perhaps the only minor quibble is a traitor seems unnecessary suspense padding, as John Shors provides a deep historical character study.------------------ Harriet Klausner
ParadisePorch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
From Hilary Hatton at Booklist: It¿s the fall of 1942, and the U.S. hospital ship Benevolence is cruising the waters of the South Pacific when it is torpedoed by the Japanese. Only nine people survive, and they eventually wash up on an island: the captain Joshua, and his wife, Isabelle, a nurse; Isabelle¿s sister Annie and a woman named Scarlet, both nurses; Ratu, a teenage Fijian stowaway; Jake, a black engineer; Nathan and Roger, two officers; and Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier.Okay, first of all, let¿s look at the survivors of this accident. One: the captain of the ship. The captain. Don¿t they go down with their ships anymore? Two: three nurses. One just happens to be the captain¿s wife. The captain¿s wife, even though they were not together on the ship at the time of the torpedoing. What are the odds?The next nurse just happens to be Annie, the captain¿s wife¿s sister. The captain¿s wife¿s s¿.you get the idea. )The third nurse is a ¿throwaway¿: the character that can be killed off by the danger that stalks them all.)While it is only a matter of time before Japanese naval forces reach the island, the more immediate danger is Roger, who is a ship¿s officer, but also a spy for the Japanese. It¿s Roger who tipped the Japanese that, unbeknownst to the captain, the hospital ship was carrying ammunition and other supplies of war.Roger is drawn as a mentally unstable, sadistic, misogynistic, and overly proud man. No explanation is needed: after all, he¿s the traitor.The captain Joshua, the engineer Jake (the token black, who just happens to be the one who had befriended the ship¿s stowaway ¿ who also survived) and the other officer Nathan are, of course, kind, helpful, chivalrous, co-operative and generally nice guys. No explanation is needed: after all, they¿re Americans.Then there¿s Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier who was on the ship because the rules of war were that hospitals treat all wounded, regardless of nationality. Because Akira¿s Japanese, the author spends the entire book explaining and justifying how it is possible that he might be human; a decent and kind human who is in love with Annie. (And how Annie could possibly love him.)The Japanese who land on the island are all wicked, wicked. The Americans who come and bomb and kill the Japanese are heroes. Are we twelve years old?Beside a Burning Sea is a romance and, really, I shouldn¿t have been venturing into this territory. I have no patience with such juvenile characterization and plot coincidences. The roster of survivors reminded me of a (quite bad) story that I wrote for a seventh grade English composition.If that¿s romance literature and you enjoy it, then have yourself a read. But this is nowhere near being literature. I know I sound like a book snob when I say that, but I find that as I get older and realize that my time to read is running out, I want to read solid fiction (and my snackies of cozy murder mysteries). If I¿m going to read romance, at least let it be disguised in a half-decently written story (such as The Diplomat¿s Wife.)
DeltaQueen50 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If I were to describe the perfect story for me, [Beside A Burning Sea] by John Shors would be a very close fit. Set in 1942 the hospital ship Benevolence is torpedoed and nine survivors make their way to a deserted South Pacific island.A story of survival and redemption. These people struggle against the elements, their fear of discovery by the Japanese and even against each other. Unbeknownst to them, one of them is a traitor, he betrayed their ship and now is about to reveal their location to the Japanese. More than this, he is a true psychopath eagerly anticipating the damage he will do, the terror he will inflict. The survivors are a mixed crowd, three nurses, the ship¿s captain, two naval officers, an ship¿s mechanic, a young stowaway and a Japanese prisoner of war. Many of these people have conflicts within themselves and how they bond together and help each other survive makes for a wonderful story.Each chapter is the equivalent of a day and as we are drawn deeper into the story the suspense rises. I literally couldn¿t put the book down, I had to know how it would end. Not a perfect book but I found myself willing to overlook some minor flaws and simply savour the story. This was so much more than a simple action story, the characters are well developed, the writing extremely lyrical and the story telling rich and varied. Like the haiku that start each chapter, this book is a small gem.
winecat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Another beautifully written book by John Shors about redemption, realization and unlikely love. Set on an Island in the Pacific, survivors of a torpedoed ship must band together to survive against the one who betrayed them.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Set during World War II in the South Pacific, a US hospital ship named Benevolence is blown up by Japanese airplanes. There are only nine survivors: the captain, Josh; his wife, a nurse, Isabel; her sister Annie, also a nurse; Jake and Nathan and Roger, Navy men on the ship; Ratoo, a boy who Jake has been caring for who is searching for his father; and Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier they had been treating on the ship. Akira saves the lives of both Isabel and Annie, and all nine reach the shore of a nearby island. There is a traitor in their midst, but that is not discovered right away. The survivors set up camp on the island and work hard at staying alive, relationships are formed, as the traitor is plotting against them. At first, I was taken aback by the way the characters spoke to each other, too much of the dramatic, but I reminded myself this was a different time in the world, much different than 2010. Also, as I got pulled into the story, everything came together for me, and the drama seemed more natural. Good book with a very exciting ending.
Suuze on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I like the way John Shors writes, so this was an easy choice to read. The book itself is beautifully designed, a pleasure to look at! The story is set during WWII, somewhere in the Pacific. It has pathos, mystery, and love - nicely written. Shors uses words well in order to paint mental images.I enjoyed this book and would recommend it!
silva_44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The beauty of this book left me haunted at its end. I found myself longing to know more about each character, and wishing that Shors would have included several additional scenes, especially concerning Ratu and his father. The haikus that began each chapter were beautiful and compelling. I enjoyed the way in which Shors included several different relationships, or kinds of love. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys stories rich with detail and emotion.
taramatchi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is now a sentimental favorite! There is so much that made this book a wonderful experience for me. Between each chapter was a haiku. They were beautiful. My favorite...The earth is burning.Blackened by machines and men.Raindrops are lost tears.This book takes place during WWII so there was death and war, but when death strikes the characters by heart broke. I loved each and every one of them (except the traitor). It actually made some of the parts hard to read, just because I did not want to know what was enevitably going to happen. I loved the love stories... husband and wife, the love that crossed the bounds of race and war, and a man and a boy comforting each other.Furthermore, Shors wrote in his acknowledgments that "he hoped that the booked moved you.." and it did.
KathyWoodall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In September 1942, as the ship Benevolence sails the south Pacific, a Japanese war plane appears over head. A missile heads straight for the ship. The ship and over 500 people on board are sunk. Only a small group of 9 people survive by swimming to a near by island.For the next 18 days they come together to survive typhoons and eventually the enemy who shows up on the island.This is one of my favorite time periods to read about. I didn't care for this novel at all. You have a hard time getting to really know any of the characters. The Captain of the ship was one of the survivors but is the most whiny of male characters. You also have an 11 year old boy who speaks broken English who drove me crazy trying to read. Really, really bad dialogue.
punxsygal on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In WWII an American hospital ship is split in two by a torpedo and goes down. Only a few survivors make it to a nearby island, including the captain, two nurses and a Japanese prisoner. Slowly the band of survivors begin to establish their life on the island. As Annie (a nurse) and Akira (the prisoner) begin to fall in love, a traitor is plotting in their midst. And the island is as barbaric as it is beautiful. I found myself swept along with this story. And I loved the beauty of the haiku poems that began each chapter.
mckait on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
We will know that great lives have been lived and that our memories will forever bind us together.So ends Beside a Burning Sea.The writer is an excellent storyteller. I must admit that once I had this book in my hands, I was not expecting much. Between the choosing and the reality The description had lost its draw. I decided to carry on and have a look, and stepped into a story well worth reading.Within a very few pages I realized that I already cared about the characters. Isabelle and Annie are sisters. Nurses serving on the hospital ship Benevolence, during WWII. They cared for Americans and Japanese alike. In fact it was a Japanese man who was in their care when the torpedo struck.Atrocities have always been part of war. In this case a Japanese plane purposely torpedoed this hospital ship.Within seconds water came to the waists of the sisters. That they could only try to save themselves was immediately clear to the Japanese patient, Akira.It was then that he became the caretaker and helped the sisters to leave the quickly sinking ship.The Captain, husband to Isabelle, also managed to survive. He was on deck when the attack occurred and found himself in the water. He and only a few others survived, and all found themselves swimming for a nearby island.This group of people bonded and found a way to survive. The story takes place over a remarkable eighteen days. Days when life, death, and love would make an everlasting impression on the small group of survivors.This is a story that will draw you in and characters who will sty with you for a long time.Do not hesitate to take this one on. It is beautifully written, with a sensitivity that will have you searching for more books by this author.
GrannyNanny on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Absolutely loved this book! I really like Shors' writing. Am anxious to read Beneath a Marble Sky.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I run to the door. *Knock Knock* i leqve a note.~ hello i like you but i am dancing with someone else afterward mabey!~
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oened her door collapsing on her bed ting off her mask. Her green eyes and pale skin shone although it was very beautiful.
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blue2280 More than 1 year ago
I liked this book, don't get me wrong. It was good enough to keep me interested in it and I did want to know what happened in the end, which means I did care about the characters. The problem with the book is that it just didn't seem well written. "As if" was used so many times in this book I almost...almost...put it down. Every time I came across a sentence with "as if" in it, it would just jar me, and it happened...a lot! Sometimes less is more...especially when it come to describing scenes, or even thoughts ... and this book definitely needed to be edited some. But overall a good story.