Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rabbi Aviva Cohen is Solving Murders Again!

Unleavened Dead by Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Those of you who have read Ilene Schneider’s first book – Chanukah Guilt – will remember our beloved Rabbi Aviva Cohen. She’s the unruly-haired, rotund rabbi of the small, Walford New Jersey synagogue 'Mishkan Or,' who has been divorced twice, and has a lesbian niece Trudy, who now has two children with her partner Sherry. What’s more, mysterious deaths have been coming to her attention, and she just can’t keep from trying to solve them – much to the chagrin of her ex-husband Steve who’s been working in Walford as the interim Police Commissioner.

This time, in the midst of preparing to preside over a wedding taking place the day before the most stressful of all Jewish holidays, Passover, Aviva is very busy. She has to clean her house and cook for the holiday, in between her regular duties and attending a conference of the International Rabbinical Association. While at the conference, she hears of the carbon monoxide poisoning deaths of the Fischers. She soon finds out one of her rabbinical school classmates, Ben Bronfman, performed ceremony for the Fischer’s daughter Audrey's marriage to George. However, Ben didn’t know George wasn’t Jewish until he was about to sign a contract with another synagogue in Walford – B’rith Abraham – that included a no intermarriage clause. When his wife Sandy finds out she’s furious that Ben may have unknowingly ruined what could be his last chance at gainful rabbinical employment. What’s more, there are aspects of the accident that don’t sit right with Aviva.

Aviva hardly has time to dwell on that when there’s more bad news. The university where Sherry was running the counseling center hired a new head of the psychology department – John Quincy Moorhouse. Part of his job included taking over the counseling center, and the first thing he did in that position, was demote her to practically a desk ornament. Of course, that made Sherry violently angry, and she quit in a huff. The timing for this couldn't have been worse. Sherry and Trudy were planning to get married, but now Sherry says she can’t go through with it until she can contribute to the home. When her new ex-boss dies in a hit-and-run accident, Sherry is the #1 suspect. When Aviva finds out Sherry had a ‘fender-bender’ the same night Moorhouse was killed, even she had some doubts about Sherry’s innocence. However, if this Moorhouse was so rude to Sherry, he might have angered others. That’s when Aviva realizes she must get involved – to save Sherry and make sure she and Trudy can get married.

That’s not all, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more. What will strike readers of this book is how well all the many different plot lines are kept separate until they need to come together to assist Aviva in solving the crimes. Where Schneider’s first book was a little too obvious regarding the real culprit, here readers won’t be so sure they know “who dunnit” until almost when Aviva herself figures it out. This is a real improvement and Schneider should be very proud. She leads us down a few blind alleys throughout the story, which is just as it should be. This gives the reader a heightened sense of mystery, making the solving of the crimes even more enjoyable.

As before, Schneider knows how to make the good characters sympathetic to her readers, and the bad guys unlikable. What's more, where some of the characters in her first novel got slightly more “text time” than their importance to the story, here Schneider has given us a much better balance. For instance, we don’t meet the dead Moorhouse – nor should we. His past is what is important, and we find out just enough about that to understand that he’s got many more enemies than just Sherry. All this comes through as part of Aviva’s investigations, rather than via some extraneous descriptive passages. Moreover, the comic elements that Schneider gave Aviva in the first novel have been carefully honed and perfected. Schneider evokes everything from sly smiles to outright laughing, all with a light, conversational “breaking the fourth wall” style that speaks directly to the reader, without the dark undertone of a "film noir" voice-over. Through this, it seems, Schneider has truly found her unique voice.

Of course, most Jewish readers will easily sympathize with the stress of preparing for Passover combined with everything else going on. Schneider has also made it so that even non-Jews will probably get it as well. On the other hand, some of slightly elaborate descriptions of Aviva’s cooking don't add all that much to the story. This includes such passages as the onion-chopping scene, which is a joy to read. Although her reddened eyes add something to the next scene with Steve, I’m not sure we really needed a full step-by-step of the all Passover recipes. In fact, one wonders why so much about food comes into this story. In her defense, it does help us remember that the rabbi is overweight. As a result, while I think some of those sections need editing, they certainly can stay.

However, that’s really the only drawback of this book. In short, with “Unleavened Dead” Schneider has given us a plot that has just the right amount of complexities, interesting characters to both love and hate, enough twists to keep us guessing throughout the story, and a Jewish holiday setting that adds to the stress. With this second novel, Schneider is very much coming into her own, and getting better at it along the way. There is no doubt that whatever she comes up with next for Rabbi Aviva Cohen, it’s going to be both a thrilling and humorous romp, and I can hardly wait! I can wholeheartedly recommend this novel and I give it a solid four stars out of five. 

"Unleavened Dead" by Rabbi Ilene Schneider, published by Oak Tree Press (Dark Oak Mysteries) December 12, 2012 is available on Kindle from Amazon, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this novel for review.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on the consumer review sites Ciao and Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Name, Rank and 8200

Spies, Inc.: Business Innovation from Israel's Masters of Espionage by Stacy Perman

Whatever you may think about Israel, you have to admit that from its inception, the odds were against it. You also must give it credit for surviving while being outnumbered by over 100 to 1 from the onset. Under those conditions, the only way to keep afloat is to outsmart your enemy, and that's what this book is about. The major focus here is on the technological side - that being things like computers, electronics and advanced weaponry - and how one division in particular had a large hand in it all. That unit is called 8200 which is part of the Intelligence Division of the IDF.

However, this book isn't only about one army unit and its effect on the IDF. It also delves past that and into the influence that the graduates from 8200 have had in helping Israel to become one of the biggest innovators in the Hi-Tech business world today. Keep in mind we're talking about huge strides in technology that are affecting the whole globe. For instance - ever send or receive an SMS message on your cell phone? Ever take part in a video conference? Perhaps you sent a song or perhaps a picture to someone's cell? What about that great, yet simple invention - voice mail? Well, there you go - those are some of the things that ex-8200 soldiers invented. And the list goes on.

One of the more interesting facets that this book investigates is why such a large concentration of young men and women achieved so much in their short lives. One of the answers the author gives is similar to the old adage "necessity is the mother of invention." When your existence is at stake and any errors in judgment could cost the lives of both your fellow soldiers and innocent civilians, then there's just no room for conventional thinking. In fact, you've got to find solutions to problems that haven't even cropped up yet! The IDF set out to find, sow and nurture and grow the minds that could do this, and of course the harvest from this is going to be exceptional. This developmental process is what this book is all about.

Mind you, author Stacy Perman wrote this from a very pro-Israel prospective. This may disturb some readers, so be warned. However, she also seems to have a slightly left wing bent here, as she describes the then PM Ariel Sharon as 'hawkish,' and seems far more enamored of the outspokenly 'dovish' Shimon Peres. You should also know that you're not going to learn any previously unrevealed secrets from this book. The IDF cleared everything in this book, and very few military innovations included will be breaking news. However, what will be enlightening are the methods used, and the innovations that came from those same young people who developed these methods.

Interestingly enough, Perman's style here has a fictional flavor to it. In fact, some of the accounts of historic triumphs in Israeli espionage sound like excerpts from a joint effort between John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum. Take this quote as an example, so you can see what I mean:

In the inky darkness of the pre-dawn hours, the Red Sea had turned choppy. The sun had yet to bathe the sea, known in Arabic as 'Al Bahr Al Ahmar', in its winter light. Fishing boats moored in the waters surrounded by Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan rocked in the stormy darkness. An old, blue cargo ship, sailing under the flag of the kingdom of Tonga, cruised northward, making its way toward the Suez Canal, while on board most of its 13-man crew slept.

This just means you're not going to feel bombarded by boring statistics and lists of bland information. I must add at this point that I felt a touch cheated when I finished reading this book. I was hoping to learn much more about the start-up companies and amazing products that these 8200 graduates developed. Instead, I feel she gave us a touch too much about the military side of the story, and not quite enough about the entrepreneurial side. She did handle the business side as even-handedly as possible, by also including how the Hi-Tech bubble-burst affected these fledgling companies.

In sum - I found this book to be very well written, very carefully researched and totally fascinating on a subject that I most likely would have never read about, had my son not heard of the book and insisted I buy it. Mind you, it is slightly biased on the pro-Israel side with a touch of a left-wing slant. Nevertheless, for a non-fiction book on business, this reads more like the history of Ian Fleming's development of gadgets invented by "Q," with some scintillating episodes that any 'double-oh' agent would have been proud to have been a part of. Furthermore, at only 256 pages, it's not a long read, either. This is one book on spying that doesn't, and shouldn't be kept a secret - four out of five stars and highly recommended!

(By the way, for the first time I've found the preface and acknowledgments to be equally as fascinating as the body of the book. What's more, the endnotes are just as interesting.)

Spies, Inc. by Stacy Perman is available in Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on the consumer review sites Dooyoo and Ciao under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The REAL Chocolate Wars

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars by Joël Glenn Brenner

A friend gave me this book to read since she knows my deep devotion to chocolate. She was reading it for its marketing and business information. Well, anything about chocolate must be interesting, but I didn’t expect myself to get through more than a page or two. Much to my surprise, after reading the first few pages, I suddenly found that I couldn’t put this book down. Now I never had this type of an experience with a non-fiction book before. And what’s more, almost everyone who reads this book will find something out that they didn’t know before - whether it's about chocolate or business or industry.

So what will you know when you've finished reading this book? You'll know how two competitors work. You'll know how they organize their companies. You'll know how they develop new products, and why they use one recipe versus another. You'll learn about both the brilliant strokes of marketing genius, and the stupid mistakes that could have been avoided. You'll see how different perspectives towards these issues have kept these two companies fighting for the highest market share possible, both inside the USA and abroad.

Does that sound boring? Well, it isn't. Little did I know that when I started reading this book that I would soon be so captivated that had John Grisham or Stephen King had seen me, they would have turned green with envy. To say the least, this isn't your typical business book - it has action, comedy, suspense, drama, romance and thrills. It's all because of Ms. Brenner's writing style. Ms. Brenner brings even the very mundane into the world of extreme interest. She makes much out of the intrigue so that although it's really economics, it's still interesting. She works her way around marketing so that it's suddenly as moving as a love scene. And as for business, by her hand it sounds downright bubbly. This talent is rare and should be treasured.

Mind you, you aren't going to find out all the secrets behind these two companies. You probably won't find out any real secrets at all. In fact, it has been said that the CIA could take tips from Mars on keeping secrets from competitors. Hell, if I was head honcho at the Pentagon, I'd hire Mars as my #1 consultant on security. Hershey's, on the other hand, was always a bit more open to the public - but that didn't stop them from hiding certain areas of their plant during their (I believe, now defunct) guided tours, and almost from Ms. Brenner herself, did it?

What fun things will you find out? You'll find out how the famous American chocolate given away by Allied soldiers during WWI and WWII differed from the chocolate we eat today. You'll find out why anyone who has tasted European milk chocolate will find Hershey's to taste extremely… um… different, to say the least. You'll find out why E.T. followed a trail of Reece's Pieces instead of some other taste tempter. You'll find out why one type of nut is preferred by one company over another. You'll find out just how stubborn these two companies are to change. But mostly, you'll find out just how competitive two rivals can be and how little you know about something that touches your world every single day, and is one of the world's most heated and important markets since its discovery.

This may still not tempt you to read this book, but I’ve tried my best. You’ll have to trust me on this one. I highly recommend this book, with only one hesitation - you'll be tempted to eat too much chocolate during and after the reading. My suggestion is you buy the book then buy some fine chocolates to go with it! 

Originally published by Broadway Books (January 4, 2000), this book is now only available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble marketplaces, or from an IndieBound store near you.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Women who Orbited Fame

Almost Famous Women: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman

In the notes at the end of this book, author Megan Mayhew Bergman informs us that, "The stories in this collection are born of fascination with real women whose remarkable lives were reduced to footnotes." She also says that she's "fascinated by risk taking and the way people orbit fame." Bergman herself has taken a risk by writing a collection of short stories, but I think she pulled it off without a hitch.

Reading just these two little snippets, you might already realize just how nicely Bergman writes, and that's not even her fiction. In this collection of short stories, Bergman brings us into the lives and minds of women we've probably never heard of, although some of them have surnames that will ring more than one bell. For example, we have a Wilde and a Byron (direct relations), the Hilton twins (no relation, that I can tell) and a Millay (which only poetry lovers will recognize). However, all of the other names here have faded across the decades, and only aficionados of their various pursuits will find them the least bit familiar. This is part of what makes them all so fascinating, since any one of them would be an excellent subject for a full historical fiction novel on their own.

Of course, it could well be that this is just what makes this collection so special. Because each of these women (or girls) only appears in a single vignette, Bergman uses a small aspect of their lives to tantalize us with each peek. Moreover, in almost all of the stories, the focus isn't on these "almost famous" women themselves, but rather on someone else who would normally have been a minor character. In this way, Bergman takes women who themselves orbited fame and tells their story from the viewpoint of someone who orbited these nearly illustrious women. For instance, we learn about Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter Allegra, from the viewpoint of a woman who cared for her in the convent where her parents placed her. In this way, Bergman describes the fleeting and delicate ripples that surrounded these lesser-known celebrities. I hope you can agree with me that this concept is especially ingenious, but what makes these remarkable is the way that Bergman presents them to us. 
Bergman's writing is ethereal, gentle, and mysterious, with poetic passages that virtually caress her readers. At the same time, her stories are both accessible and inviting, both because of and despite how compellingly unusual these women were. To think we get all this from a woman who, tells us in her notes said she's "uncomfortable writing historical fiction." Well, she certainly fooled me, since there is absolutely nothing at all uneasy in her literary style. After all this, you won't be surprised when I say that I must give this book a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it (and here's hoping that this book brings Bergman the recognition that her subjects failed to attain).

"Almost Famous Women" by Megan Mayhew Bergman published by Scribner, released January 6, 2015 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in hardcover from The Book Depository, new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book via NetGalley.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Science of Love

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman may be a genius when it comes to science and genetics, or anything else he decides to study, but he's clueless about two things: women and his Asperger's Syndrome. Despite this, he's determined to find himself a wife in the only way he knows how to do anything - like a scientist. However, there's no scientific way to chart the course of true love, but that's not going to stop Don from trying.

Touted as the "feel good" book of 2013, this book intrigued me even before it hit the shelves. Unfortunately, the publishers decided I wasn't the best type of reviewer to send an advance copy to, so I had to wait until after its publication, so I could buy it for myself. The question is, was it worth it?

The short answer to that is yes, since I really enjoyed this novel. Simsion easily gets into the head of Tillman, with as much ease as Mark Haddon got into the head of his protagonist Christopher in his novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime." Of course, many will be drawing parallels between these two novels, since there are many to be drawn. Both have protagonists who have Asperger's and both are trying to achieve something and the way to do that will challenge them because of their condition. To reach their goals, they also have to go through no small amount of self-discovery, and despite their age differences, essentially both are coming-of-age stories. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Empty Nest and/or Wishful Thinking

Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope

Edie is an actor, but raising her three children Matthew, Rosa and Ben, made her put most of her career on hold. After the last of her children finally moved out, that nest seemed suddenly very, very empty. This doesn't bother her husband Russell; he's thrilled he'll finally have Edie to himself. Well, as much to him as her career will allow, that is. Of course, Edie's sister Vivian isn't going to help much, since she's been clingy since her divorce from Max.

I've always enjoyed Trollope's novels, mostly because she makes you see her characters. Her ability to get into different people's heads, and understand them and their situations is uncanny. However, with this novel, I'm afraid she bit off a touch more than she could chew.

Edie is the focal point character of this story, with a larger than usual cast of characters whose influence on Edie is such that they aren't as minor as they could have been. This isn't to say that Trollope only concentrates on one main character in her books, since she always has many minor characters as well. However, with "Second Honeymoon" I feel she's spread herself a little thin since most of the minor characters here get more highlights than usual. With this, we end up not knowing Edie as well as we could, and I felt that this book suffered because of it.

Then there are the sub-plots. There's Edie's sister Vivian and her relationship with her ex-husband Max as he tries to re-enter Vivian's life. This interesting sub-plot provides a counter-point and parallel to Edie's own changing family situations, especially considering that they're as different as two sisters can possibly be. While that sounds okay, the problem here is the addition of about six more sub-plots, all of which are equally interesting. There's Russell's own re-assessing of his agency vs. his attempts to have Edie all to himself. We also have Matthew's relationship with his girlfriend Ruth. Let's not forget Rosa's financial and employment problems, coupled with her involvement with the young co-star in Edie new play. That brings us to Lazlo, the young actor Edie has taken under her wing. Rosa also has her friend Kate who is a newlywed and just found out she's pregnant. That Kate lives near the new posh apartment that Ruth just purchased which Matthew couldn't afford to buy with her - thereby causing a rift between them, is yet another angle here. Finally, we have Ben and his moving out to live with Naomi at her mother's house.

Is your head reeling yet? Well, truth be told, it isn't as complex as I've made it sound. Trollope's saving grace is that she is able to juggle all these stories together and keep her readers from being confused. What's more, she does all of this in less than 400 pages of text. Nevertheless, with that sort of brevity, we end up with only fleeting glimpses of many of her cast. This means that the type of psychological depth that usually accompanies Trollope's works is sadly missing here. That is why I believe she was a bit over-enthusiastic in tackling this large group, despite her obvious great affection for all of them. I'm wondering if she had downplayed some of these sub-plots, and perhaps even deleted one, she might have had more leeway to beef up the more interesting sub-plots, and then made Edie more central to it all.

Still, there is something very comfortable about reading Joanna Trollope, and this one is no exception. The language flows easily, without any flowery pretence, and we can depend on getting a plateful of honesty with every page. This makes reading her stories a pleasure rather than a chore, and this one was an easier read than most. More importantly, she typically leaves some loose ends, while offering enough conclusions or partial solutions to make her stories realistic. I consider this a real asset to Trollope's talent, and despite my reservations about this particular novel, I'm still a huge fan of her writing.

If you ask me about recommending this book, I'd have to say only maybe, but probably not. Devoted fans will still want to read anything that Trollope has to offer, and nothing I can say here will deter them. Still, I can't give "Second Honeymoon" more than three stars and would tell those new to Joanna's work that they're better off reading something else of hers first (such as "Other People's Children," for instance). Sorry, Joanna, but you didn't charm me with this one, but I still love your novels.

"Second Honeymoon" by Joanna Trollope published by Transworld released October 8, 2010 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Fry-ed Life

The Fry Chronicles: an Autobiography by Stephen Fry

This is Stephen Fry's second installment of his autobiography. The meat of this book takes place during his most formative years – those being while he was at Cambridge and the years afterwards as he was making his name in print, radio, television and on the stage. Once the world started to sit up and take notice, his talents as a comedian and an actor and a writer brought him fame and fortune.

While this book drops names more often than you’d drop your shorts to change them, Fry is almost never patronizing or full of himself. His self-depreciating nature and general dissatisfaction in his looks, combined with a large slathering of insecurity is more than obvious here. You’ll find out about how he met Hugh Laurie, what his addictions were back then, and all the while giving you hints into his present life with nods to his younger years as well. He holds little if anything back, and throughout the book, you feel like he’s writing just for your eyes only. However, the most charming thing about this book is that you’ll find yourself laughing aloud at every turn of the page.

One thing you’ll notice here is that all of his chapter headings start with the letter “C”. Perhaps this is because most of this book talks about his college days at Cambridge; both of which star with the letter “c”. Of course, it could be because he’s a comic. Then again, maybe it’s because this is a chronicle of his climbing career. But for whatever reason he chose the letter “c”, it certainly was a fruitful choice, and worked with exactly the amount of wit and intelligence which personifies such an amazing man.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Scent for Infatuation

Nectar: A Novel of Temptation by Lily Prior

This novel is almost pure fantasy, as opposed to this author's first work, which was mostly reality-based. While the story and people and events in "La Cucina" could actually have existed (despite some of the unusual bits), unless there's some amazingly missed documentation out there, it is doubtful that many of the characters and proceedings in this story could actually happen in real life. However, this isn't some type of Tolkien or Pratchett-like fantasy, nor something from outer space. No, this is more like a fairytale, complete with a moral!

Set (again) in Italy this is the story of the unjustly snobbish, unattractive, albino servant, Ramona Drottoveo, whom all men adore, and all women hate. Why do all women hate and all men adore this ugly, unkind and poverty-stricken woman? The answer is her intoxicating scent that drives men wild with desire. Husbands, boyfriends, fathers and sons alike, not one of them are immune to her, and that's what makes the women hate her so much. Ramona adores the attention - both emotionally, and physically. Still, she tries to find real love, and thinks she's found it, until her husband - the village beekeeper - promptly dies after finding her on their wedding night, in bed with another man. When his body disappears, she becomes an outcast, and she flees for Naples. The rest of the book follows her adventures, including how her life changes with the birth of her daughter, Blandina.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Army for Enlightenment

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy

Author Jerusalmy introduces this book as follows:

"Born at the end of the Middle Ages, François Villon is the first modern poet. He is the author of the famous Ballad of the Hanged and Ballad of Dead Ladies. But Villon was also a notorious brigand. In 1462, at the age of thirty-one, he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced “to be hanged and strangled.” On January 6, 1463, the Parliament quashed the sentence and banished him from Paris. Nobody knows what happened to him subsequently…"

With that introduction, combined with the title, you would expect this to be a cross between "The Name of the Rose" and "The Da Vinci Code," and essentially, that's what you'll find here, sans any murders. Well, sans any murder investigations as the basis for the plot, since there's plenty of killing and death in this book. Instead, what Jerusalmy has done here is build on the mysterious disappearance of this poet, and place him in the middle of a conspiracy, which history tells us would have been doomed to begin with. The scheme here is to find rare and, for the most part, banned manuscripts for printing and mass distribution, in the hopes that what these books contain, and their subsequent popularity, will help King Louis XI of France undermine the supremacy of the Pope and make his country the center of Christianity.

There is some historical accuracy in this premise, but we all know how that turned out (as Monty Python says, "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition")! Still, it is a very interesting idea to base a story on, and one that easily adapts itself to the type of adventure novel that this book is. However, for someone like me who doesn't usually read this genre, there has to be something to pique my interest. In this case, what drew me in was having a large chunk of this story set in the Holy Land of the 15th Century. What kept me reading, though, was the beautiful writing, with its equally lovely and highly atmospheric translation by Howard Curtis.

Jerusalmy's descriptions of Villon's travels across this land were particularly absorbing, especially for someone who lives here and can recognize many of the places he describes. Yet Jerusalmy does more than just entice us with these places so imbued with antiquity (even back then), he also gives us a protagonist who himself is both mysterious and vulnerable. I particularly liked how this poet struggled with his faith and the many emotions he experienced walking the often hostile, yet somehow welcoming landscapes of a land so filled with meaning, and yet so fraught with strife. Most importantly, it struck me how precisely, yet gently, Jerusalmy showed how enigmatic this region has always been, and mirrored that in both his characters and his plot.

Of course, there are many other elements in this book. These involve a slew of characters and all their many machinations, including a plethora of twists that effect Villon and his mission, both for the good and the bad. This was my main problem with this book, as I found that it was sometimes difficult to understand who was who and at what stage all the maneuverings were. This could be because I'm not used to this type of story, combined with my lack of knowledge of the history of the time. However, there were enough of the actions and thoughts of the characters to keep me interested and the beautiful writing and superb translation certainly kept me reading. Even so, I'm still not completely sure if I fully understood what happened in the end. Because of this, I'd have to say that regular readers of adventure stories will probably enjoy this much more than I did, so while I'm warmly recommending it, I'm going to have to give it only four out of five stars. 

"The Brotherhood of Book Hunters" by Raphaël Jerusalmy published by Europa Editions, released November, 2014 is available from AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo BooksiTunes (iBook), the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

A novel that will stick with you

We are all made of Glue by Marina Lewycka

Georgina is in a bit of a mess. Her husband has left her for another woman, her daughter hardly speaks to her, her son is going through a mid-teen crisis, she can’t seem to get anywhere with her steamy romance novel, and she’s stuck writing articles about adhesives for a trade magazine. Just when she thought things couldn’t get worse She meets Naomi Shapiro, a lonely widow living with lots of cats in a run-down and filthy mansion who needs her help. Despite her better judgment, Georgina does get involved, and that's when the trouble begins.

The first reason I liked this book is that all the above information isn’t how this novel begins. The story actually opens with Georgina meeting one of Naomi’s cats – Wonder Boy – who immediately pees on her. With this kind of opening, Lewycka brings the reader into the story immediately, and thereby catches our attention, and it doesn’t stop there. Added to the cast of characters are an Arab builder and his “useless” crew, a bunch of shady and/or sexy estate agents, social workers, municipal agents and even Georgina's editor and his son. All this, and more, gets flung together in a conflagration that, well, gets all gummed up. Of course, since this is a comic novel, things will get unstuck eventually, but how it does is a true delight.

As confusing as this may sound, what makes this work is how Lewycka narrates the story using Georgina as the main voice. While some people think first person narratives are cliché, I have to admit that if done correctly, this can work very well. It does give the story a very personal feel to it, as if we’re in the brain of the main character. Lewycka also does two other things to help us better understand the other major players in the story – these being Naomi and Ali, the Arab builder. With Naomi, she wheedles some of her background out of her over some disgusting tea, and at other times, uses Georgina's overly nosey character to find out more about her when she’s “inspecting” Naomi's house or when she cat-sits. What she’s unable to uncover in her investigations, she gets out of Ali, who also offers her some of his own history.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Connecting Two Lives Lived 50 Years Apart

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

Alexandra is stuck in rural England, living at home, sharing her bedroom with siblings again, after being sent down from university for going through the wrong door – an act for which she refuses to apologize. But it is the mid-1950s and she’s ready to make her mark on the world. So, she packs up and makes her way to Soho in London – with little more than the card a stranger gave her, and the new name he gave her – Lexie. Fast forward to the present and we find Ted has just weathered almost losing the woman he loves, Elina, while she was giving birth to their son. Although Elina is on the mend, something is happening to Ted that seems both strange and sinister. This is the story of how these very diverse stories, set 50 years apart, come together.

The story here is precisely O'Farrell’s forte – taking two (or sometimes more) characters or situations that seem disconnected, and bringing them together. The novel switches between the two very smoothly, even as the plots unfold during two different eras. Using different time-lines works very well in keeping separate voices during co-existing stories, but generation jumps work even better, and seem to allow us to even further focus on the stories. And although the action in the book fascinates us, this is really a character-driven story, and O'Farrell knows full well how to develop characters, making them realistic, but never predictable.

This O'Farrell does using the third person voice for her novels. While many may think that this voice is less personal than first person, there is an advantage. With third person, she is able to delve into the types of things about her characters that they wouldn’t be revealing had she used a first person narrative. Plus, she does this with such a minimal amount of background descriptive passages that as soon as we read the first line, we are thrust directly into the story and these lives. Combine this with a talent for almost poetically constructed prose, that’s still approachable by not being flowery by using simple language and the magic begins.

In addition, O’Farrell’s theme to this book is a universal one that anyone can identify with. Here she investigates self-discovery, answering the questions that the past has put up for you, while finding your way in your daily life. While this sounds dry, we also see how lies and deception can put us off course, and even affect us physically as well as emotionally - which is also a classic O'Farrell theme. For instance, in the older timeline, Lexie falls for Innes Kent, whose wife's cruelty and vindictiveness towards him is unwarranted, stemming solely from her own guilt. In the present, Ted is suddenly getting flashback memories from a time in his childhood he previously didn't recall, and they're giving him headaches and blurry vision. As the mysteries of these two eras gradually come to light, the reader gets increasingly involved in the story, making this very much a page-turner.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating; Maggie O'Farrell is an amazing writer. Reading this book as she slowly brings these characters into our minds, hearts and the world, is like taking small bites out of your favorite food, and letting it settle in your mouth and then allowing it to slowly be consumed, taking as much pleasure out of every flavor and nuance of texture possible. Furthermore, how she brings the two stories together was like watching someone learn how to shuffle a deck of cards. She edges the ends closer and closer together until each pile integrates into the other, while remaining separate. It’s this delicate balance between the whole and the sum of its parts that makes this so marvelous. And to top it all off, this novel will affect you emotionally, with a perfect ending, which follows a climax with such intensity that you might even find yourself crying uncontrollably (as I did).

Don’t get me wrong, just because this made me cry doesn’t mean its “chic-lit.” On the contrary, this is literary fiction. I am certain that anyone who enjoys a beautifully written book with fascinating characters, a story that keeps you interested, and a style that is both unique and easy to read, will love this novel. This book deserves to receive a full five stars out of five, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly.

"The Hand that First Held Mine" by Maggie O'Farrell is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.  (This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.)

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