Monday, December 30, 2013

When Even the Smallest Moments in Time Make All the Difference

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Byron Hemmings is a clever boy with an equally clever best friend James Lowe. When they hear about adding an extra two seconds, the idea astounds them both. But then Byron notices his watch moving backwards at the exact time the accident happened, and nothing will ever be the same. Together, these boys attempt to put things right during that spring and summer of 1972. 40 years later, the mental institution that Jim has been in and out of since he was 16 is closing its doors. Now Jim has to figure out how to live in the real world, and how to protect it from any harm he might cause. In this fascinating story, told in chapters that alternate between 1972 and 40 years later, Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) once again takes us on a uniquely personal journey in her second novel "Perfect".

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Top Five (or Six) Books of 2013

My Choice for the Most Worthy Reads of the Past Year

It seems that everyone is putting up their "best of 2013" lists right now. On the one hand I find this slightly premature. What if something amazingly noteworthy happens between now and midnight on the 31st of December? Won't we all feel a bit silly having missed including that in our yearly round-up? On the other hand, who am I to tilt at such long-standing windmills?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read 35 books during 2013. That may not seem like a whole lot to most of you. However, for someone who has a demanding full-time job (as well as a couple freelance editing gigs), is mildly dyslexic (and therefore reads slower than most people), and spends no small amount of time writing, publishing and promoting my book reviews, I think that's a pretty good number. What's more, there are two more books I'm half way through already, and will probably finish at least one of them (if not both) before they play the last chords of "Auld Lang Syne." All of these books were published over the past year, so I feel reasonably assured that I can be considered an amateur authority on the subject. Finally, since it isn't likely that I'm going to find the next Pulitzer Prize for Literature before the year ends, here goes my 2013 countdown …

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Girl who is Part Mystery, Part Fantasy

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday

Reading Paul Torday's novel "The Girl on the Landing" makes one want to paraphrase Joseph Heller's quote from "Catch 22" to read: "Just because you're [being treated for] paranoid [schizophrenia], doesn't mean they aren't really after you”.  The story here is about Michael and his wife, Elizabeth. They've been married for ten years and have a relationship that is best described as "they get along well together." That is, until a strange incident in Ireland when Michael sees a girl on the landing of the house they're staying at. Soon after that, Michael seems to change – he’s suddenly become more affectionate and loving. This makes Elizabeth ignore his slightly erratic behavior. But just when it seems that Elizabeth is finally finding the man she always hoped for, their whole lives begin to fall apart.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Making of a French Empress

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

It took 30 years for Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to go from being a young Creole girl from Martinique, to being Rose de Beauharnais and finally becoming Josephine Bonaparte and the first Empress of the French Empire, before she was divorced from Napoleon. Her life and experiences were well documented by historians. In her debut historical novel, "Becoming Josephine," Heather Webb looks beyond the facts to find what made this girl into such a legendary woman.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Teaching Men Manners is No Laughing Matter?

Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys by Eric Garcia

Cassandra French is a character that any woman would envy. She's beautiful, has a lovely home and what seems to be a great job - she's a lawyer for a Hollywood studio. Mind you, she doesn't get the really big cases, being in the Business Affairs department, but what does that matter when you meet stars every day? Besides, Cassandra has a vocation. Cassandra knows exactly how all women really want to be treated. But that may not be an advantage, if she and her friends can't find men who will treat them right. So she's figured out what men need to learn. And she's began her one-woman crusade to teach at least some of those boorish men (but just the ones with some potential) how to treat women properly. That's when she "opened" her Finishing School for Boys.

Friday, December 13, 2013

One Family, One Holiday, Many Generations of Women

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney

Patience was a newlywed, pregnant with her first child on that cold November morning of 1662. When she went outside in search of her husband, she saw a turkey fly into the oak tree in her yard. The fateful killing of that bird ended up being something to be truly thankful for. It also was where the legend of the Morley family of Massachusetts began. This novel follows the Morley women over 350 years, using their ancestral home and the food they prepared for this holiday as the focal points.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Not Seeing the Trees for the Forest

All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

Maria (aka Masha), was born to turmoil as a Jew in Baku, Azerbaijan, who fled with her family to Germany in the 1990s. From birth she was always been an outsider. And no amount of her learning so many languages - including Russian, Arabic, German and French - ever made her feel like she fit in. The other outcasts she knows - Beirut born Sami who has problems with his visa to the US, and Cem the German born Turk who she cannot love - don't make things better. But with her German boyfriend Elias - or as she calls him, Elisha - she has found some refuge. So when he breaks his femur playing soccer, and the subsequent complications kill him, she's thrown into turmoil that she can't cope with, together with the guilt she can't escape.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Death Among the Dreidel Set

Chanukah Guilt by Ilene Schneider

According to the book cover synopsis, "Rabbi Aviva Cohen is a 50-something, twice-divorced rabbi living a rather uneventful life in South Jersey. True, she has a family that is rather unconventional. And her first ex-husband is moving to her town. But her life takes a truly interesting - and sinister - turn when she agrees to officiate at the funeral of an unpopular land developer. She doesn't expect to be told by two different people that he had been murdered. Nor does she expect that the first funeral will result in a suicide. ..." I couldn't have put it any better and Rabbi Ilene Schneider's first book (and yes, there will be more) is a very nicely done first outing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ten Warmly Flowing Stories of Louisiana

"Down at the End of the River" by Angus Woodward

I have never been to Louisiana. In fact, the first things I think of when I hear the name of that state is humidity, hurricanes and heat. Other words like Creole and Cajuns also spring to mind, as do crocodiles (or are they alligators? I never can tell the difference). Alliteration and stereotypes aside, reading a collection of stories set somewhere that's new to me, is always a draw - a virtual vacation, if you will. Angus Woodward draws his audience into his home with these ten fascinating stories. They are entitled:

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Anthropology of Motherhood

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Anna seemed like a normal baby when she was born to her unwed mother Jess. As she grew, she seemed ultimately happy. She was the type of child who glowed from within. So when Jess realized that Anna wasn't normal, that she'd never learn to read or do math, she decided to do everything she could to protect and care for her. Despite this, her mostly abandoned career in anthropology continued to hover in her periphery.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tasty but not Scrumptious

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

When Vianne Rocher, her daughter Anouk (with Pantoufle - an imaginary rabbit) breeze into the small, religious, French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with the intention of opening a chocolate shop during the holy time of Lent, you just know that there's going to be some problems. Since Vianne is a single mother, you can imagine that the least of her problems might be her tempting confections on the town's citizens, who are trying to deny their weak bodies. You see, Vianne believes in magic - not just the magic of delicious foods, but also in the magic of life itself, and that isn't going to go down well with the pious mayor of the town, Reynaud, whose championing of Christianity is the village's moral cornerstone.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Adopted Siblings Road to Discovery

Brother & Sister by Joanna Trollope

David and Nathalie and are the children of Lynne and Ralph. You wouldn't find a closer brother and sister anywhere – except that they're not really siblings. This is because Lynne and Ralph adopted them. This fact was never a secret, and all their lives both David and Nathalie believed that it made no difference to them. They've grown up healthy, loved and become well-adjusted adults and are both in good relationships – happily married and with children of their own. But when Nathalie is interviewed about how being adopted effected her life, although initially she denies that it made any difference to her, she suddenly discovers a need to find her birth parents, and insists that David do the same. This takes them down a road that neither of them were ever prepared to travel, and yet, are both, inexplicably drawn towards. This is the story of "Brother and Sister" by Joanna Trollope.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Looking for Mister Good-Read

How many times has a book blurb made you immediately think "been there, done that"?

As mentioned in some of my earlier posts here, I belong to a few sites that let me request advance reader copies of books, and in exchange, I review them. For the most part, I've been very lucky in that almost all of the books I've gotten have been surprisingly good. Some have even been amazing. But the down side of this is that the bar for books I might want to read has gotten higher.

I recently received from one site a list of upcoming books from one of their publishers. As always, the site asks me if there are any of the books on the list that I might want to read and review. So, like the avid reader anxious to get my hands on the next best seller before it goes into print that I am, I start going over the list.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A match made in heaven or a literary crime?

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

All of Pemberley is getting ready for the annual Lady Anne Ball, and all seems to be going as planned. That is, until the carriage with Elizabeth's sister Lydia shows up. She's all in a tizzy, going on about gunshots in the woods and begging someone to find her husband, fearing for his life. When the search party finds Wickham, he is alive. However, he's covered in blood and standing above the body of his best friend, Captain Denny. So begins the mystery of the murder of Captain Denny, which will certainly bring scandal on Pemberley and the Darcys, and might end up with Wickham hanging from the gallows. This is "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Many Collective Nouns for Rooks

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

William Bellman started his life humbly. With a father who abandoned him and his mother, and a grandfather who never approved of them, he still held no bitterness. Then his uncle took him on at the mill and he quickly proved himself to be intelligent and hard working with an excellent head for business. Soon he was prospering along with the mill. But everyone's life is touched by death. It was at those times that William began noticing a dark, cloaked figure - someone who disappeared as quickly as he appeared. When they finally meet, this mysterious man becomes William's partner as he takes on a new business venture, but at what cost? 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Trio of Girls and Their Off-Key Father

Finding Amos by Mason, Billingsly and McFadden  

Amos is the only connection between Cass, Toya and Tomiko. Back in the day, when he was making it in the music scene of Motown and blues, he was very popular with the women. These girls' mothers were among them, and he loved them all - but not in the way they needed him. So when his career called, he abandoned them, each in turn. Twenty years later, in a nursing home after an accident and diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and the only phone number he has is Cass's - the only one of these three girls, who isn't biologically his. And now that he needs them, the question is, will any of them forgive him. This is "Amos" by J. D. Mason, ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Bernice L. McFadden.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Lessons in Grieving

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

You'd think the quiet lives that Dorothy and Aaron led would end uneventfully. Then the storm came, which caused a tree to fall through their house, killing Dorothy. After Aaron moved in with his sister, Dorothy started coming back from the dead. As she shows up more and more, Aaron finds he's looking not only at their relationship, but his whole life. That includes the destroyed house, his disabled body, his bossy sister and a job in the family publishing business.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Is Chick-Lit getting a Bum Rap?

First Impressions


Let's face it, the moment we hear the term "chick-lit" our minds immediately go directly to those cheap books our mothers (or at least my mother) used to buy from the supermarket. You know the ones; they have very distinctive covers. Mostly you'll see a man's bare, upper body, rippled with muscles, in extremely close proximity to a woman who seems about to faint. Sometimes she'll be wearing one of those dresses that have tight corsets and push her boobs up to enhance an overflowing décolletage, which is only partially hidden beneath delicately gathered paper-thin muslin. (I've always thought that the tightness of their outfits were to blame for these women looking semi-conscious.) Those are the so-called "bodice-rippers" that Harlequin is still churning out to this day.

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Life in the Day...

Ostrich by Matt Greene

Alex is the only one in his primary school allowed to wear non-religious headgear. That's because he's been bald since he had his brain surgery. But that doesn't matter much to Alex, even though it could make him feel - as he calls it - "ostrichsized" (which is a better word for excluded - because ostriches can't fly so they often feel left out). No, Alex is concentrating on getting a scholarship to a good middle school. He's also trying to figure out what's behind all the strange things that have been happening since he had his tumor removed.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Poetic Memoir of Ondaatje's visits to Sri Lanka

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient," was born in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). In 1954, at the age of 11, he left for England and in 1962 he moved to Canada. Only as an adult did Ondaatje go back to visit the island of his birth, which he called the "pendant off the ear of India." While there, he investigated his family history through the places and people still there. This is his account of these visits.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A Pre-Revolutionary French Feast of Fiction

The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Marie d'Aumout's earliest memories are of eating beetles from the dung heap outside his dead parent's home. After being rescued from this, he’s brought to a school for other sons of the impoverished aristocracy. There he begins a new life, one that brings him many adventures, and throughout it all, he culls his palate for exotic foods and fills his journals the remarkable recipes he invents.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Gender Roles in Literature

Do Female Characters Get the Short Shrift?

A friend of mine turned my attention to an article by Sophia McDougall in the New Statesman entitled "I hate strong female characters." In truth, Ms. McDougall doesn't really hate them; she just dislikes the use of the word "strong" to describe them. She's upset that this seems to be the only adjective available, while male characters get whole slews of them. Moreover, she feels that this promotes having two dimensional female background characters when men are front and center, and getting all the juicy qualities. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Slavery Through Women's Eyes

Book Review for "The Wedding Gift" by Marlene Suyapa Bodden 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Fictional Story of 'The Missingest Man in New York'

Monday, August 5, 2013

A New Fairy Tale & Ballet

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

The latest work by author of "The Time Traveler's Wife" Audrey Niffenegger is a modern fairy tale, written to also be the story of a ballet. The plot is deceptively simple. A postman finds a young female raven that has fallen from her nest. He takes her home and eventually they fall in love. From their union the Raven Girl is born. The rest of the tale is her story.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

On Genre Preferences and Reviewing Books

Can a reviewer do justice to a book in a genre they don't usually read?

I recently found out that a good friend of mine is finally getting a book published. Since I've had the pleasure of reading and reviewing books by several friends, my immediate reaction was to ask her if I could get an ARC[1] for the book. But then I remembered - she's into fantasy and science fiction. When I mentioned this to her, she said "no problem - its horses for courses and it doesn't matter how kindly you look upon an author, you're not going to like anything in a genre that's not your thing." (Yes, she does really talk that way - she lives in Yorkshire.)

Friday, August 2, 2013

A Trek of Self-Discovery

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Queenie, an old colleague of Harold's, is dying. When Harold gets the news, he finds he can't post the letter he's written to her, so he just keeps on walking. And so he starts his 627 mile walk that takes him 87 days away from his home and wife Maureen in Kingsbridge in Cornwall to Queenie in the hospice in Berwick in Scotland. This is "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Comfort Foods and Curious Phenomena

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

Ginny has Asperger's, and one of the few things that calms and comforts her during times of stress, is cooking. So when she's trying to cope with the sudden death of her parents by making one of her grandmother Nonna's recipes, and Nonna's ghost appears in the kitchen, she's not sure what to think. Is she being cursed or has she got a gift? One thing for certain, she can't tell her sister Amanda, or she'll certainly have to move in with her and her family. More importantly, what was the message Nonna was trying to tell her, just as she faded away? Whatever it was, Ginny knows one thing - she wants to be left alone to find out and take care of herself, no matter what Amanda thinks.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Who is the better writer - Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling?

Yes, I know full well that the novel "The Cuckoo's Calling" was published under Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith. By all accounts, the novel was getting fairly good reviews before anyone knew the truth about the author. While it wasn't being considered for any best sellers lists, it was certainly not doing badly for a seemingly "debut" novel.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Novel of Art, Birds and Mysteries

The Gravity of Birds by Tracey Guzeman

This book follows two paths. First we have the story of Alice and Natalie Kessler - sisters who were once lovingly close and now forcibly remain together, still bonded by mutual bitterness. Part of that bitterness comes from Alice's Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Natalie's need to care for her sister after their parents die. But a larger part comes from the pasts that both women are running from.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Come to me, my little pretties!

Here in Israel, where English is maybe the third, if not the fourth language of the country, bookstores don't leave much room for English titles on their shelves. Those they do stock are more often than not fan-fiction, and what I call best-seller pulp (Danielle Steele, Stephen King, etc.) that hold little to no appeal for me. Since these are imports, they also aren't always affordable. Used bookshops do exist here, but there too one finds slim pickings at the best of times. Plus, these shops are almost always located off beaten and inconvenient tracks. In short, since moving to Israel, obtaining reading material in my native tongue has always been a bit of a challenge here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Great Debate: Electronic vs. Dead Tree Books

Which are better - eBooks or print ones?

In today's digital world people are increasingly looking online for their entertainment. But is there anything that will get people to read books again? While eBooks and audio books are helping, is that enough?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The subtlety of words

Recently, a friend of mine put the following up on Facebook:

Advice both elegant and succinct on how to distinguish between the words "elusive" and "illusory," from "Fowler's Modern English Usage," 2/e: "The elusive mocks its pursuer, the illusory its possessor."

One of the comments on the thread noted that the person had never used the word illusory, but that this might encourage them to do so. While I too don't recall ever using the word illusory, this type of thing always has me rushing off to my trusty thesaurus.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Magical Realism In Literature - Does it Work?

When and how should authors ask us to suspend disbelief?

Not long ago, I read the book Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller. About half of the story takes place in 21st century New York. The other half takes place in 18th century France. Bringing this all together is the narrator, who is a fly. But he is no ordinary fly. He lived as a man in France and now his soul has been brought back and into the lives of two, modern-day people.  

Yes, I know. You're already thinking "oy vey!" But I assure you, this isn't as "oy vey" as you might think, however much it should be.

Friday, May 31, 2013

One Novel, Two Readers, Different Effects

It is never any surprise that a book that affected me also has an effect on others. What always surprises me, though, is how one book can influence people so differently. My sister brought to my attention this article Composites: German Language and 'Things Fall Apart' by Jalees Rehman, M.D. In it, the author, whose family spent time in the same region where this story takes place, finds that the language of this novel that he says changed his life forever. One cannot disagree that this book is striking in its simplicity of language, which makes the story all the more poignant.

Friday, May 17, 2013

So… who is this "Chocolate Lady" of whom you speak?

I'm sure by now you'll have realized that I am "The Chocolate Lady." This particular nickname was actually not self-dubbed. (Over the years, people have called me many things. I sincerely hope that most - if not all - have been long forgotten.) For those of you interested, here is the long version of how I obtained this auspicious handle.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Prepare to Die… Laughing

"The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure" by William Goldman.

Many years ago, in the land of Florin, there lived a girl who had the potential of being the most beautiful woman in the world. Her name was Buttercup, and she was a milkmaid. Westley was her family's farm boy. The truth is Buttercup didn't know she was in love with Westley; and although Westley knew he loved Buttercup, he had nothing to offer her, and they departed for him to seek his fame and fortune. This is how the true account of their story begins, which quickly leads to many adventures (and misadventures) for both Westley and Buttercup, before they can finally be reunited. Along the way they encounter Prince Humperdink, who is determined to marry Buttercup and make her his queen, with the assistance of his most trusted Count Rugen. But the course of true love also includes such interesting people as Fezzic the giant, the Spaniard master swordsman Inigo Montoya and the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who am I to be writing book reviews?

Monday, May 13, 2013

In the beginning