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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Fry-ed Life

"The Fry Chronicles" 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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Getting Us Up Close and Deserving Your Undivided Attention

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

Here is a book for which it is almost impossible to write a plot synopsis. Like many of Ondaatje's other works, this doesn't have narrative that follows conventional literary patterns or rules. Although there is an overall linear aspect to the novel, the general feeling is more of a shifting spiral. I'm sorry if this doesn't make sense, but I can't help what I feel about a piece of art.

The book opens introducing us to two girls - Anna and Claire - who live with their father on a farm in northern California and their farmhand named Coop (short for Cooper). Technically these girls weren't biological sisters. Their father adopted Claire when he found her mother had died in childbirth. What's more, that same week his wife also died giving birth to Anna. After some investigation into the relationships between these four people, the book then shows how events tore them apart, focusing on Anna, Claire and Coop separately. With Anna being the sometimes narrator of the story, we also get involved in one particular segment of her adult profession, that being her research into the life of the poet Lucien Segura. The connection here is Raphael, the son of one of Segura's neighbors, and how he becomes involved with Anna. From there in the story, we leave these initial characters and become fully involved in Segura's story, and his relationships, which almost felt like two novels in one - somewhat.

I say "somewhat" because of the title of this novel. It comes from a street in San Francisco - where Anna lived at one point. In the book Ondaatje has Anna explain the origin of the name of the street probably means 'division' but also she theorizes that it could come from a verb in Spanish 'divisar' which means 'to gaze at from a distance'. In this, we find that the title of this novel is a metaphor for the book as a whole. Both the modern characters and the historical ones find their lives divided by something at one point. They also feel connections

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tasty Reading

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

For those of you who aren't familiar with either the movie or the book, this is the story of the events that happened to a group of people who lived in the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama in the 1930's. One of its female residents - Mrs. Threadgoode, tells these stories many years later, to Evelyn - a woman who makes friends with Mrs. Threadgoode while visiting her husband's relative in the same old-age home. These stories, filled as they are with love, sex, intrigue, mystery and conflict, so intrigue Evelyn, they actually end up affecting her life as well. We also see these stories told by other past residents - through snippets of newsletters and flashback vignettes.

Rarely does one get the chance to first enjoy the movie, and then afterwards read the book, and enjoy it just as much. What's more, to read a book after seeing the film and then still bed a fan of the film is even rarer. This is one of those occasions, especially because I found the movie to be enchanting, with believable characters, an interesting plot and great acting. What I realized only after reading the book was that the movie was only went so far. This may mean that those who read the book first, were probably somewhat disappointed with the film. That's why I think I got it right - movie first, book afterwards.

One of the first things you'll notice is that Flagg put tons of charm into this book, without getting sappy or sentimental. This is a major achievement, especially when we recall that some issues addressed here are very controversial - including the KKK, family abuse, segregation and more. In addition, Flagg leaves us with little to no illusions as to the general attitudes of southerners towards these issues, while at the same time shows us there were those who quietly felt differently. Flagg's heroes were in this minority when that could get you into a whole "heap" of trouble. Certainly, the idea of being in trouble - or trying to avoid it - is at the essence of this novel.

Written in short to medium length vignettes, this book is a quick read. We jump from one time and place to another without batting an eyelash. Although this method of writing can be very confusing to the reader, this was not the case with this novel. Flagg has used her typesetters to the maximum, making older entries look vastly different from the entries taking place in the present. She even went so far as to make certain parts look like actual copies of the old, local newsletter. In this way, nothing keeps us from understanding what is taking place and when it is happening.

Furthermore, the characters quickly take on a feeling of being very lifelike, and I don't say that just because I saw the movie first. Interestingly enough, I found that while reading, I visualized the characters to look somewhat (and in some cases completely) different from the actors who portrayed them in the movie. This is particularly unusual because I don't think that Hollywood made any casting mistakes. This book also makes the reader truly feel the atmosphere of the eras when these stories take place. This is often a downfall of many writers; many a time I have started reading a book and suddenly, in the third or fourth chapter, realized the action was taking place in another time altogether. I suppose it helps that Flagg dates the beginning of each vignette, but I often skip over that information, and could still feel when the action was taking place.

As for the plot, even though I saw the movie, the story still drew me in and most of it felt completely new, probably because the movie left some questions unanswered. This is how the book kept me guessing all the way to the last page. Finally, an added extra is the little set of recipes, which are included at the end of the book, which also have literary over-tones. It is almost as if you aren't reading a recipe, but rather sitting in the Whistle Stop Café's kitchen and taking a cooking lesson from an expert like Sipsy.

Please don't be daunted by having already seen the movie and think you'll be disappointed with the book. Also, don't worry about reading the book and then realizing that the movie was a disappointment. They both have their merits, both deserve a fair chance, and both are wonderful - a full five out of five stars, wonderful, in fact. So, off you go now, and get that book, ya' hear? There's a good honey-chile! And thank-ye, kindly, for giving this ol' review a look-see.

"Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café" by Fannie Flagg published by Random House, Ballentine Books, originally released August 12, 1987 is available on Kindle from Amazon, on 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 an article that originally appeared on the consumer review site Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2014 - the Year of the Curmudgeon

Looking back over this past year, it seems that many of the best-loved books that came out in 2014 featured protagonists who are, essentially, grumpy old men. While almost all of them hardly ever stop frowning, reading about them will certainly put a smile on your face (or bring a tear to your eye). Here is my countdown of the top five 2014 curmudgeons, plus some non-grumpy books with women I also gave five stars to in 2014 (links to my full reviews are in the titles). 

5. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

This fictional story of an Israeli politician trapped between his staunch ideals about the West Bank settlements, his career and the woman he loves (but isn't married to), comes to a head when he runs away to the Crimea and comes face to face with the man who's betrayal landed him in a Siberian prison for 13 years. A fascinating read with no easy outs. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bringing Worlds Together

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O'Farrell

Jake's single mother gave birth to him, and raised him in Hong Kong. In 1993, Jake was caught in the Chinese New Year's crush, resulting in an almost fatal injury for the girl he was dating. In London, at the same time, Stella thinks she's just seen someone from her troubled past who could reveal her dark secret. Not long after these two events, both Stella and Jake find themselves in a fancy B&B in Kildoune, just outside Inverness, Scotland. There, Jake is looking to find answers about his mother's past as well as his father, but Stella only wants to hide away from hers. Their discovery of each other, along with their parallel journeys of self-discovery is the basis of Maggie O'Farrell's third novel. 

Despite how simple this plot summary may seem the story here is somewhat complex, as it toggles between the stories of these two characters, as well as between the present and the past. Even so, this isn't a difficult read, as one thing O'Farrell shines at is making the complex seem simple. Obviously, with two young people as the main protagonists, there's going to be some kind of chemistry. However, O'Farrell raises this above the "chick-lit" genre by including several additional elements. For instance, there is Stella's sister Nina, who helps advance the story through her communications with Stella, thereby avoiding some of the possible boring back-story descriptions. Nina also fills in some of Stella's historical and motivational gaps with things like reminding Stella of previous behavior patterns she should avoid repeating.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Abandonment and Devotion

Neither Here Nor There by Miriam Drori

Esty is 19 and unmarried, and that's practically an "old maid" in Jerusalem's Haredi (ultra-orthodox) community. However, the reason she hasn't agreed to marry anyone is that she knows the Haredi life is not for her. Once she's married, she might be trapped forever. Gathering up all her courage, she leaves her whole life and family behind. What she finds is a world that contradicts everything her community ever taught her, not the least of which is about falling in love.

Miriam Drori's debut novel investigates the world of those who leave the Haredi community, from the viewpoint of one young woman making her escape into the secular world. Very few non-Jews know much about this phenomenon, if anything. Since the Haredi world is based on theirs being the only true way, obviously they would prefer not to advertise those who leave their fold. Of course, women living in this world are far more oppressed than the men are, so the story of a young woman leaving makes an even more fascinating subject for a novel. In this, Drori has chosen the basis of her story very wisely, since it will surely interest many people.

Drori also seems to have done good homework here in investigating the "underground railroad" for those Haredi wanting to escape. Because of my background with non-profit organizations in the field of religious freedom and pluralism, I happen to know about groups assisting such people, many of whom succeed in making a different life for themselves as part of the greater Israeli society. Drori shows how different the two groups are, and correctly emphasizes the fact the people working for these organizations strictly forbid their volunteers to pressure someone into leaving Haredi society. More importantly, for those who find the change too difficult to cope with, the option to go back is always open to them. However, that is usually only from the side of the person who leaves; often, when someone gets out, their Haredi family will mourn them as if they'd died rather than chance being cast out by their society or shamed. While this doesn't happen to Esty, Drori nicely incorporates this into her story. This is probably the reason for the title of this book, since Esty's family are willing to take her back, and her personal struggle becomes more complicated because of it.

Together with this, Drori introduces Mark, a young immigrant from England, which is also the birthplace of Esty's mother. Her chance encounter with him on the day she leaves her home is what helps her contact someone on the "outside" she heard could help her. His small act of kindness of giving her his cell phone to use is the first contradiction Esty experiences. Up until then, she believed what her teachers said - that all secular Israelis were mean and selfish. After this brief meeting, Mark can't forget Esty, so Drori brings them together by total chance. While this effectively sets up the basic plot for a love story, it was slightly too coincidental for my taste, despite its essential necessity. This is also the reason why Drori needed to focus not solely on Esty, but also delve into Mark's life, which she does using a third person narrative.

In my experience, this point of view can be a problem since it often distances the readers from the characters, because it is less personal than the first person mechanic is. Of course, the problem with first person is the narrowness of the point of view, and I believe Drori probably felt the story would be less effective if she didn't incorporate the actions and feelings of both of these two characters. In any case, Drori does make a valiant attempt to get us closer to both of them. However, she does this with very easygoing writing style, which I found a bit too casual for the story. By this, I mean there are a few places in the book where the reader will feel they are just about to look into the hearts and souls of these two characters, but then the focus changes or the chapter ends and that moment passes. Had Drori used a more poetic style of language, she might have overcome this problem.

I also noticed that at the end of her chapters, Drori likes to hint at something important to come. While foreshadowing is an effective literary tool, in this instance it made the story feel less fluid than it could have been. Because of this, while both Esty and Mark are very likable characters and the situation is one that has great potential, it feels like Drori held a little too much back, which prevented us from falling in love with them. At the same time, I also think Drori fell into the trap of telling us this story, in places where she clearly has the ability to show it to us.

All told, this is a sweet book, and a nice little love story placed in a situation that isn't often found in novels. Drori has a good eye for finding a unique twist to the usual "boy meets girl" plot, and I feel her willingness to go down that road less traveled by. With these as her strengths, if Drori can learn how to become more fearless in letting the emotional floodgates break open in her writing, she could go on to produce some very powerful work. Because of this, in all honesty, I have to rate this book only two and a half stars out of five, but I truly hope that her next work will deserve much more (and I really do believe she can achieve this)!

"Neither Here Nor There" by Miriam Drori published by Crooked Cat Publishing, released May 14, 2014 is available on Kindle from Amazon, or in paperback from Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository, or at an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for giving me a copy of this book for review.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Slice of Glasgow's Darker Corners

"The Cutting Room" by Louise Welsh

This story has nothing to do with motion picture film editing; this is about crime, pornography, erotica, sex, and money with a mystery thrown in for good measure. Rilke is an auctioneer for a small and struggling Glasgow auction house, commissioned to empty out the home of the late (and wealthy) Roddy McKindless. Nothing seems out of the ordinary until Rilke discovers the attic. There he finds a huge and valuable collection of erotica. While this isn't terribly strange on the face of it, he then finds some homemade "snuff porn" (ones that look like murders). This motivates him to investigate the darker side of the illusive McKindless. Rilke's own promiscuous homosexuality and dabbling with drugs mix in with this investigation, leading him into some of the darker corners of Glasgow. That's it in a nutshell, but there's far more in this plot than meets the eye. And you must admit that this is an excellent basis for one twisty ride of a thriller.

What impresses the reader most about this novel is the writing style. Welsh describes people and scenes with such vivid accuracy, they practically jump off the page at the reader. It is this type of evocative writing would easily lend itself to the big screen. One can imagine grimy scenes where the lighting is almost non-existent and shadows predominate. You can visualize the layout of rooms to the details of the exact shades of the paint on the walls and which halls lead to where, and the way the light strikes the furniture. You can even imagine the streets, buildings and parks where the action takes place, without ever having had the advantage of visiting Glasgow. That's how precise Welsh is with her prose.

One might expect that a book with such detail would be very long and tedious. However, at only 304 pages, this deceptively simple story is actually quite condense and stream-lined, especially when it comes to character development. There's no waffling about with lengthy descriptive paragraphs giving us decades of background information. Instead, Welsh use suggestion to give the history of her characters through their actions and conversations. You can picture Rilke in your mind's eye; you can see what he's wearing and how he moves his hands. We believe that these characters had lives before the book begins, and that they'll live on after we turn the last page. These are real people with real strengths and a whole lot of real weaknesses. And yet, because of their actions, we don't always like these people; but in real life, we don't like everyone we meet anyway, so there's no gripe here and all the more kudos to Welsh on this account.

It is interesting that Welsh chose a male protagonist. Mind you, the man she portrays is gay, and perhaps this allowed her into his head a bit easier. However, more often than not, a writer of one sex doesn't fully succeed in writing a truly believable protagonist of the opposite sex. Welsh succeeded in spades both with this book (as well as with her second work), and that's a special talent, as the believability of the protagonist is always essential to the enjoyment of reading any book. With all this, the reader is grabbed from the very first line of the story and drawn into the book like iron shavings to a magnet. You'll be swept up and involved and you'll feel like these 304 pages are less than half that number, as you simply glide through this book. All in all, it has a total "wow" factor of 10 out of 10 because of how clearly and beautifully this book is written, which reads so smoothly and quickly.

So far, this has been glowing review. The story is absorbing and original, the writing vivid and compelling, and the characters interesting, carefully drawn and realistic, and it's a fascinating and fast read. However, there is a drawback to this book, and the disappointment come in how Welsh ends this story. Of course, without giving away the ending of a mystery book, the conclusion here was a bit too neat and contrived, despite the very clever twists that she put in. You may note that prior to this novel, Welsh had written only articles and short stories. Oftentimes, longer efforts by an accomplished short story writer tend to disappoint with their endings. This is probably why her second book, a novella, was so much better as a whole. There is also the distinct feeling that Welsh tired of writing when it came to tie things up, and just wanted to finish it off as quickly as possible. That's a shame, since this book had such great potential. Still, this is a wonderful example of how fiction should be written - as far as the aspects of settings, plot development (if not the ending) and character developments are concerned. Louise Welsh has proven that she can write stunningly. This is why this I can recommend this novel, but can only award it three and a half stars out of five. 

"The Cutting Room" by Louise Welsh published by Cannongate, released November 1, 1999 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or 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 {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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