Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Consequences of a Hand Job

The Fourth Hand by John Irving

Patrick Wallingford is an unusually attractive man but only a second-rate television news reporter who never seems to get the really good stories. Unfortunately, he becomes a headline himself when a lion bites his hand off during the filming of a piece on a circus in India. After that incident, his career takes an unexpected turn, as does his overly-steamy sex-life. when a hand surgeon offers to give him a hand transplant, his life gets turned upside-down because the donor hand has "strings attached" in more ways than one!

Anyone who saw the film "Return to Me" will know how eerie the idea of a donor's relative being in contact with the recipient can be. That movie made it seem less creepy, but Irving never goes the easy route, not by a long shot; Irving always takes the most absurd and unconventional path. In this case, the donor's wife wanting visiting rights of the hand - and what's more, her thinking that getting pregnant by the recipient of her husband's hand will help her finally have a baby by her own departed husband.

Irving once again gives us a cast of characters that are ... well ... frankly, stranger than fiction - if one can say that about fiction. Patrick Wallingford is actually the least bizarre of all the characters in this book - and he's the main character. He's supposed to be so attractive that women throw themselves at him, but readers may find it difficult to picture him that way. This is probably because Irving has painted him as a person who doesn't take charge of his life, but rather seems swept away by its events, which is a sign of weakness. Therefore, while he may be physically attractive, if this type of personality comes through, it would be with stupid, blank expressions on his face. "Stupid" doesn't turn on most women with this Irving cheats the reader out of getting to 'see' the real Patrick Wallingford.

A more anomalous character is Doris Clausen - the wife of the original owner of the donor hand, Otto. What makes her so curious is the way she is attached (morbidly so, if not almost physically) to her dead husband's hand. That attachment is probably part of the reason Patrick finds her appealing, or perhaps she's the only woman he's ever met who isn't at all sexually interested in him - rather only in the part of him that doesn't originally belong to him! Here again, Irving doesn't give enough about Doris to actually allow the reader to envision her as a real person. This doesn't mean that Irving doesn't describe her. On the contrary, he is quite clear about that. Unfortunately, like with Patrick, Doris's character doesn't seem to click with the descriptions that Irving has given, and she ends up being a very blurred image.

Then we get Dr. Zajac - the hand surgeon helping replace Patrick's hand, who wants to promote himself professionally. Other reviewers of this book have found this character to be one of Irving's most comic ever. However, while he was likeable, in an offbeat and humorous way, I found him more sad than funny. This could have been a good thing, but unfortunately, he didn't garner a great deal of empathy, partially because of his secondary role in the novel. This means that while he seemed sad, we don't feel sorry for him enough to sympathize with him. The other character is Mary, a co-worker of Patrick's. Finally, here is a character one can identify with - a hard-working career woman who also wants a family, even if it can't be a conventional one. Mind you, while likable in some ways, she is also slightly one-noted, sometimes inane and occasionally desperate to the point of being annoying.

The one character of this book that will suck you in is - strangely enough - the donated hand! As absurd as this may sound you may actually see this hand more vividly than any other 'character' in the book. In fact, I felt that Irving put more into the hand's interaction with the rest of the story than anything else. The problem is, just how attached does one want to get to an amputated appendage. Astonishingly enough, this is where readers may actually start to feel some emotional connection to this story. So at least, on this level, this novel did succeed to a certain extent. With the book entitled "The Fourth Hand," perhaps there is something in the title role of this book having a truly major part to play. Thankfully, Irving doesn't have the hand speak to us.

All that said, usually character-driven stories are much more intriguing, and usually better written, than plot-driven stories. The plot here is not one that is very unusual, when boiled down to its absolute basics. That being: the trials of a broken man trying to make himself whole again (both metaphorically and literally). Unfortunately, the off-the-wall way that Irving presents this story line puts it into the realm of almost the fantasy genre, and unable to overcome the flaws in the character development. That may be fine for Lord of the Rings, but we're talking about a literary fiction.

Nevertheless, if a plot-driven story is less captivating, then the overall feeling of this novel was one of detachment (excuse the pun). There is no true emotional connection (sorry, yet again) to the 'real' characters in this book. Compared to "The Cider House Rules" or "A Prayer for Owen Meany," it feels like Irving lost his ability to make the reader care about his characters. And if you can't care for the characters, then how can you care what happens to them? So while the book has some interesting bits in it, I cannot truly recommend this one, and can only give it three out of five stars.

(This is a revised version of a review which originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

You can buy this book from: Amazon, from The Book Depository, on from iTunes as an iBook, on Nook from Barnes & Noble, from Kobo, or from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

What is a "Portrait of America?"

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

The Berglunds, Patty and Walter, are a typical suburban couple. This is their story, told from their early beginnings throughout their lives. The Berglunds live in a home they've renovated in a run-down neighborhood just outside St. Paul Minnesota. Soon others from the gentrification crowd join their surroundings, they bring two children (a son and daughter) into the world, and the years go by. The problem is, what starts out as a budding, happy, middle-class family, slowly becomes four individuals that can't recognize any resemblances among them.

Many reviewers have called this a "masterpiece" and most of this admiration is warranted, and for several reasons. To begin with, this portrait of a late 20th-early 21st century family takes in the hopes and joys of living the American Dream together with the illusions that this era shattered along the way. With a book so heavily anchored in reality, there is no room for fantasy, although as they and their world change, they begin to act on the very flights of fancy that their dreams cannot accommodate.

Franzen has a unique talent with his ability to extol attributes in his characters while mitigating that with language that contains undercurrents of cynicism. In this way, Franzen foreshadows with his writing style rather than with descriptions and explanations. This doesn't mean the storytelling is harsh, nor does he patronize his characters. Instead, he treads this thin line, shifting between these two aspects, allowing the reader the ability to make their own judgments regarding how the characters behave. Franzen does this by having each of the characters narrate their own stories, and so their own personalities shade and shadow the action.

The only thing that most reviewers seem to neglect is the significance of the title of this novel. The word freedom, especially for Americans, holds a myriad of connotations. Not the least of these is the very basis of their country's own existence. Interestingly enough, while Americans bandy about this word in front of the rest of the world, the exact same type of people that Franzen describes here are watching their freedoms slowly erode. What's more, these aren't always freedoms extracted for political reasons. They're also freedoms that they themselves have given away or have taken some action, which has kept them from leading truly free lives.

On the other hand, perhaps the freedom Franzen is referring to isn't at all political, social or financial. The question then is what type of freedom are the Burglunds seeking? More importantly, will they even recognize or appreciate it, when (or if) they achieve it? Of course, the answers may or may not be evident when you've read the book.

For all of this, I find it hard to assess this book. Certainly, Franzen's style and character development, combined with his artful use of language is fascinating. However, I couldn't help thinking that this should have made this book far easier to read. I actually found myself debating if I should continue reading or not. For this reason, while I will recommend it, I'm giving it only three out of five stars. 

(This is a slightly changed version of the review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Buy this book from: Amazon, from The Book Depository, on from iTunes as an iBook, on Nook from Barnes & Noble, from Kobo, or from an IndieBound store near you.

Friday, August 29, 2014

No bones about it; this is a lovely book!

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

When George Harvey raped and murdered Suzie Salmon, she was only 14 years old. He did this in a room he dug out underneath the frozen cornfields. The story here, told from Suzie's point of view after she is dead, are her observations of life on earth.

From this description, one could easily have thought this would be a creepy or morbid novel. It could also have been quite maudlin and sentimental. However, we can be thankful that instead it is simply a beautifully written tale. Sebold also employs a point of view that, in this case, is a stroke of genius - by writing it in first person omnipresent, with the dead Suzie speaking to us from whatever afterlife you believe she is now. This point of view is very hard to pull off. Often it will result in sounding like a god or some kind of "Big Brother" know-it-all, at best. At worst, the writer will choose some inanimate object or animal that somehow has the type of communication skills that can further the story. Because of this, first person omnipresent treads the extremely fine line between horrendous and exquisite, and usually results in the former. Sebold's unique success explains why people call this book a modern classic.

Furthermore, this unique position allows Suzie's observation of those she's watching to include understanding their emotions, mixed with her own new experiences. Of course, Suzie's death at 14 means this is an age she never leaves, but those she left behind grow and change over the years, even as they relive their pasts through their memories. In this way, Sebold combines the past with the present, the static with the ever changing, giving the reader an insight into both loss and the lost - the latter of which we almost never get to see.

Into this, we get the mystery of Suzie's murderer, which becomes a sub-plot. Suzie knows who killed her, and can observe his actions and feelings, but the world below her is still clueless. Because of this, we get involved in wanting the living characters to know what Suzie knows, and yet like Suzie, are helpless in forcing their hands towards the evidence that would lead to the proper conclusions.

However, complex this may seem, the beauty here is the very simple language that Sebold uses. Practically minimalist, it is much like one would expect from a young teen-aged girl. In an interesting contrast, Sebold includes Ray in this story, the boy Suzie loves. One might think that the circumstances of her death would make Suzie adverse to her own adolescent longings of what physically consummating her emotions for Ray would have been like. Yet, she is and always will be young, which Sebold's echoes with her lyrical style that borders on poetic, tempered with naiveté - all without becoming sappy. What's more, the way Sebold ends this book is the absolute model of perfection - not too much, not too little but with an "oh my goodness, wow" type of punch.

Some people said this book changed their view of life after death. However, I see Sebold's "heaven" as a metaphor or allegory, and not something spiritual. That Sebold doesn't mention god or religion even once throughout this book is certainly an argument for my interpretation. It is an ethereal encounter with strong psychological overtones, dealing more with how we cope with death and the memories of those we have lost and less about what happens after we die. Using the ruse of a 14 year old Suzie and her heaven gave Sebold the opportunity to look at it all in as many dimensions as possible, while allowing it to be voiced as modestly as possible.

In short, this is a masterpiece novel - one with sensitivity, emotion, and mystery all wrapped up in a magical package that couldn't feel more real. This book deserves a full five stars out of five, and I'm totally recommending it with all my heart. However, I can't say that this is going to appeal to those manly-men who feel too macho for this type of book. That's unfortunate, since I feel that anyone who has ever lost a loved one should consider this as required reading. Sure, it could make you cry - and I certainly did, especially at the end - but a real man shouldn't be ashamed of that, especially with this book.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is available in paperback, hardcover and CD-Audio from the Book Depository (free shipping worldwide), as an iBook from iTunes, from Kobo, in paperback or Nook versions from Barnes & Nobel, as a Kindle book from Amazon, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a vastly revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Very Carefully, Apparently

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathan Tropper

Two years after Doug and Hailey were married, Hailey died in a plane crash, leaving Doug her home in the suburbs, her angry son who doesn't want to live with his father because of his new trophy wife, a large settlement from the airline and Doug's life in a shambles. That was a year ago, it's time to move on, or so his family seems to think; but how can he?

From this summary, don't think this is going to be a heavy drama filled with angst, tears and heartbreak. In fact, it may surprise you that this is actually a very funny book. To do this, Tropper investigates how someone in Doug's position might do very idiotic things. Humor might seem slightly out of place but Doug is a columnist who hijacks his satirical column in order to unleash "rapid-fire bursts of raw, unadulterated pain," or what he calls his "emotional Tourette's." Again, this might seem heavy, but Tropper deals with pain with such honesty one can't help but feel Doug is absolutely human and realistic. If for nothing else, I'd urge you to read this book for Tropper's perfect character development of Doug throughout this story.

Tropper doesn't stop with Doug. He also brings in Doug's less than perfect family - into the mix, he brings Doug's senile father, twin sister Claire, ex-actress mother and younger sister Deborah. Then there's Russ, Doug's stepson who has a less than ideal relationship with his father and stepmother (and, occasionally, the law and other authorities). Among a few other characters, there's Doug's literary agent who thinks Doug's suddenly popular column can be a book. Each one of these people has real-life faces and their own problems so while this may seem like soap-opera fodder, it is exactly how the world really is.

Of course, since we see everything through Doug's eyes this is primarily Doug's story. The reader understands this fully with his own myopic view of his world, with him narrating the story mostly in first person. I say mostly because in a few occasions, another person speaks, but these don't detract from the intimacy of this story. Since Doug into a writer Tropper can give his protagonist as much of his own writing ability, so that the language in this book sometimes borders on the poetic, but never bombastic.

We also get to read two of Doug's columns to see why his literary agent is so excited. This also furthers the agent's part in the story, and allows Tropper to show this relationship by giving us some of the emails that go back and forth between them. Through these literary mechanisms, we are kept on our toes and this contributes to the pure readability of this novel and like-ability of the characters. In addition, Tropper's insertions of the background of this story are so subtlety placed throughout this story that we never get bogged down with long, boring explanations.

There's something very touching about everything Doug and the people in his life are going through. For instance, Doug describes himself as being "young, slim, sad and beautiful" and because of this, "anything can happen." As hopeful as this seems, Doug also realizes that this tag line applies to not only him and the realization that the "anything" might not always be positive. This duality is what makes this book such an engrossing read. Couple this with the humor and honesty Tropper brings is probably the reason why it could bring you to tears. Still, I can't impress upon you enough that there's nothing too sentimental here since Troper plays on his character's multiple faults, showing us how absurd they are, while still allowing them to be human and sometimes infuriating.

I'm hoping I've been able to impart just how lovely this book is. Tropper is a master at character development, using first person to make us connect with his protagonist on a very emotional level, while including other literary devices to keep this from becoming monotone. The injection of human comedy onto the result of a human tragedy keeps this story from becoming maudlin. After all that, I cannot do otherwise than highly recommend that you read this book, which I'm giving a full five out of five stars.

You can buy this book in paperback from Book Depository, as an iBook, from Barnes & Nobel, via Kobo or as an Amazon Kindle book.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Flavored for Deception

Sweetness #9: A Novel by Stephen Eirik Clark

David Leveraux's first job is to test the toxicity "The Nine" an artificial sweetener. When he discovers adverse reactions in monkeys and rats combined with the company's cover up, he loses his job and has a nervous breakdown. His recovery comes through another job - this time in the field he studied for, as a flavorist - the food chemist responsible for developing better tasting food additives. With only rare twinges of guilt, he watches as "The Nine" sweeps the world. Maybe he was wrong back then, or was he?

Anyone who knows me will have heard my rant about artificial sweeteners and their poisonous qualities. Over the years, numerous scientific studies backed up my opinions, combined with the evidence of my own experiences when using and then eliminating them from my own diet. Yet, they're still out there in practically every processed food available on the market today and shamelessly flaunted to boot. Even with all this, it seems like no one pays attention to their harmful qualities, despite the growing reliable evidence that continues to pile up attesting their detriment, and absolutely no counter-studies to refute their dangers. Maybe this novel will change all this.

However, can fiction change things in the real world? I think it can. Remember, sometimes fiction - based enough in reality - can push overlooked issues to the fore of public consciousness. This works especially well when the world consistently ignores the endless numbers of dry tomes of data, facts, and figures. Case in point: Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime" after which Asperger's Syndrome became practically a household word. Although this novel might not be wholly the same, there is no small amount of factual and historical content here. This might brighten the eyes of those that glazed over from countless journalistic attempts to unveil them by employing everything in their arsenal from immutable reason to panicky scare tactics.

Haddon succeeded because he wrote his protagonist to be ultimately sympathetic, and combined that with a question that his readers increasingly wanted him to answer. This was an enormous achievement mostly because the protagonists' condition was both unfamiliar and barely pronounceable. By comparison, Clark's task of making the perfectly normal David Leveraux sympathetic while having something as innocuous as an artificial sweetener into something sinister, seems easy. However, this isn't as simple as it seems, because after fearfully abandoning #9, Leveraux goes on to a company that develops the artificial flavors we desire the most, making us crave more processed foods. Hence, the slippery slope that David has a hand in, goes far beyond the evils of just #9, and takes on the ramifications of flavorings in general and their effects on the modern day diet and our health. Then comes the question - is David a good-guy, the genius bringing us foods that tastes wonderful? On the other hand, is David just following (or in his case, filling) orders and keeping his mouth shut?

The thing is, we immediately like David, and we quickly empathize with him, even when we disagree with him on any number of subjects and issues. Clark does this with swiftly flowing prose that we gobble it up like the first meal after a fast. As we delve into David's life and family on the backdrop of history that leads David to finally telling this story, we realize just how quickly the Western world's eating habits (and Americans in particular) have changed over the past 50 or so years - for the better and for the worse. We then begin to wonder who is to blame for the worse parts - people like David, American culture, capitalism, greed, or maybe it is someone or something else altogether?

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it seems to combine genres. Although this isn't historical fiction per se, it certainly starts out that way in 1973, as it takes us through 2013, with a few of trips into the late 1930s-early 1940s Germany. While there's no crime or murder involved, there is intrigue, mystery and some adventure, all written at a pace is as swift as you would expect for these genres. By the time we get to the climax, we've even experienced romance and no small amount of comedy. Then there's the climax itself and the subsequent ending, most of which borders on the absurd, but not the unbelievable, especially if we recall the adage 'truth is stranger than fiction,' which Clark stretches to the max!

In short, this novel is exciting, informative, and insightful and at turns both funny and horrifying. I would even go so far as to say it's one of the most captivating novels I've read in a long while, and it was so engrossing that I willingly ignored practically everything in my life just to read it. No, it may not blow the roof off the artificial sweetener market and get people back to drinking unflavored water or soda. However, it could start opening people's eyes to the food industry's ignoring health warning signs while chase big buck, and that's no small feat. What's more, this is Clark's debut work, so watch out world because it deserves no less than a full five out of five stars! 

"Sweetness #9: A Novel" by Stephen Eirik Clark, published by Little, Brown & Company, released on August 19, 2014 is available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books. This is a revised version of my review that appears on my Times of Israel blog. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

That Which Emerges from Her Cocoons

The Behaviour Of Moths (or The Sister) by Poppy Adams

Take two estranged sisters, reunited after 47 years and of course, things aren't going to be comfortable and breezy. Put them in the stately home they grew up in, which is now a dilapidated mansion that one sister has stayed in all this time, and you know someone is hiding something - if not both of them. Poppy Adams begins her novel with the older sister Virginia (known as Ginny) nervously waiting for Vivien's long awaited arrival, and already you can see this visit isn't going to be a loving and joyful reunion.

From the title you can already imagine that this story is going to be unusual. In fact, as we know that moths become animate after sundown, the immediate metaphor comes through. Certainly, the darkness of this novel is what prevails here. Together with that, we can imagine that we will find a creature drawn to the light, even if that means its destruction. Adams' uses this metaphor to the hilt, while also including the residual metaphors of the destructive nature of moths, and their frantic erratic movements. For instance, as the book opens we find Ginny both nervous and upset because her baby sister Vivi (as she calls her) is 20 minutes late. Her mind flits from watching for her sister, to thoughts of their childhood to her fascination with her breath clouding the window. With this, we can already see that our narrator isn't going to give us a story that unfolds with ease.

Vivi too is included in the metaphor. She is the light that Ginny wants and fears. Throughout the story, we see Ginny's attempts to become closer to Vivi while at the same time almost fearing her. Ginny darts between these two attitudes as quickly as she does between her deep admiration of their father's work studying moths, and the fraying of the family fabric this caused. She is meticulous in describing all she learned about moths from her father, but we also find there are holes in her memories of her family's relationships. The question here is can Vivi mend what is left, or is it time to say it is beyond all fixing?

Adams builds these two characters as carefully as a caterpillar builds its cocoon - strand by strand until the whole shape comes together. This doesn't make for a fast-paced story, which is to its credit. This is because she is also hiding a surprise hidden within, which she layers throughout the book. In this, Adams brings us a mystery that seems to grow, take shape and come to life much like watching this caterpillar's metamorphosis. As Ginny notes, you can never tell from looking at the cocoon what kind of moth (a good one or an evil one) will come out until it breaks through. Here again, we see how Adams uses this metaphor regarding the sisters and their feelings regarding what kind of person they perceive the other to be verses what they really are.

With all this, one would wonder why I didn't give this book a full five stars. On the one hand, Adams excellently conceives the idea and plot development. However, there were several things less endearing in this book. First, although Adams did her homework about moths to perfection, she put a bit too much of this into the book. The passages describing these creatures and Ginny's and her father's slaving away at this hobby were a bit tedious. While Ginny is a tedious character, I could have done with less detail. This is probably why this book feels slow, as a whole, and the plot needed some streamlining. I also found Vivi's actions didn't always make sense. Finally, I am still unsure how the ending of this book left me feeling. While I prefer a book that ends with you needing to think about it, I got the impression that some things left unanswered, really needed a conclusion here. 

Since this is a debut novel, admittedly what has been accomplished here is very promising, despite the drawbacks. Certainly the metaphors here are marvelously developed and the main character of Ginny is both vivid and an excellent example of how to use this literary mechanic. Adams' writing style is crisp and clear, which has been interspersed with just the right amount of imagery to imbue it with a Gothic mood that mirrors the home where this story takes place. With all this, I feel confident in recommending this book and giving it a solid four out of five stars. I look forward to reading more from Adams in the future.
"Behaviour of Moths" by Poppy Adams was first published in the UK, and released in the US under the name "The Sister," which is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Rapture, Ecstasy, and Bliss from Your Kitchen

How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

The difference between cooking and baking is that the latter is a science. I've even heard it called chemistry for the kitchen. In truth, that's a good analogy because baking a cake or cookies isn't something you can just do without some kind of formula. This is why if you like to bake, having cake cookbooks on your shelves is practically essential. The one cook who makes even the simplest dessert seem like gourmet ecstasy is Nigella Lawson.

This is why I bought her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking," it is a delightful book! First of all, it is esthetically attractive without being overly professional. A quick glance will find the pictures to be, well, to use a worn cliché, good enough to eat! However, the photographs of the items included look as if a home-cook baked them. Even the cupcake on the cover has a flaw.

What this means to the average reader is although the visuals looks delicious you won't feel you're attempting something overly daunting. This is because Lawson believes that cooking shouldn't be fussy, difficult or just for professionals. Lawson and her books are therefore popular because they tap into your ineptitude; you realize that you can produce a cake for which your friends and family will be willing to break their diets.

Thankfully, Nigella doesn't dumb-down her recopies, nor will more experienced bakers feel patronized. This is probably the best quality of this book. Both the recipe introductions as well as the recipes themselves are friendly and ultimately welcoming. If you've ever seen her on TV shows, you'll probably be able to hear her excitement-filled velvety breathy voice and childlike pleasure as you read. She also explains why particular recipes were included, or how she overcame a tricky step. Moreover, she seems to have many suggestions for substitutions and variations. Mind you, she doesn't like to encourage skimping, particularly on quality ingredients, so if you want to use margarine instead of butter, you won't find that suggested here.

There are those who have criticized this book for her imprecision in her recipes. In her defense, Lawson knows that no two kitchens are the same, just as no two people are the same. If she makes a pastry in a warm kitchen and its cold in yours when you attempt the same recipe, the conditions will affect how the ingredients react. For just this reason, she explains how to adjust quantities to compensate for anomalies. She also understands that peoples' tastes are as varied as their personalities. I appreciated seeing that she says "you can add more sugar if you like it sweeter" in more than one place. Because baking is an art based on strict formulas, she will let you know if larger or smaller amounts of anything will affect the finished product. For me, this is invaluable, since I often use cookbooks more for inspiration than for specific recipes - and Nigella has enriched my baking ideas by leaps and bounds.

Overall, this book is a general pleasure. It looks wonderful, the prose and introductions are both informative and warmly conversational and the recipes are very successful as is, or as a basis for your own variations and original creations. From cover to cover you'll feel that this cookbook is one that gives you a warm feeling inside, and in some instances, actually makes you feel sexy and attractive (unless you get fat eating too much of these creations). The only other thing I can think of to say about Domestic Goddess is that you might like this one so much that you don't want to have it in your kitchen. My solution to that is to put it out on your coffee table - right next to a fresh batch of scones! A full five stars and highly recommended!

"How to be a Domestic Goddess" by Nigella Lawson is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of a review I wrote for Dooyoo under the username TheChocolateLady, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Voices.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Sparkle and its Tarnish

The Objects of Her Affection by Sonya Cobb

If it hadn't been for that mortgage scam, the life Sophie dreamed of for her husband and two kids would have been exactly what she missed as a child - anchored and safe. But with her freelance web design work all but dried up and Brian's preoccupation with trying to procure a rare candlestick for the museum, she's going to have to find a way to fix it, and as usual, all on her own. When she almost accidentally takes a valuable mirror from the museum, she starts on a spiral that could ruin everything for her, her home and everyone she loves.

Not everyone who turns to a life of crime does so because of greed or evil intentions. Sometimes that's the only way to get by. Mind you, when Sophie did it, she wasn't homeless or starving (or both), but that was precisely what she was trying to avoid happening. This is how she convinced herself she wasn't a criminal; no one would miss the things she had taken. Anyway, she had no choice because she was a victim first.

I usually sympathize with victims, which I'm sure most of us tend to do. Making Sophie into a victim who perpetrates a crime to get out of her predicament makes her somewhat of an enigma for the readers. On the one hand, we hope she'll succeed in pulling herself out of the financial hole of her explosively expensive mortgage. On the other hand, we can't help but cringe when she steals those beautiful objects from her husband's museum. We like Sophie, but we aren't happy with her; we sympathize with her predicament, but we condemn her escape plans. To tell the truth, I was so torn with my feelings here that I found myself shouting "no, please don't do it" to the book several times during the narrative. We become emotionally involved very quickly, which shows that Cobb has succeeded in writing a story that gets right under our skins, and that's no small feat.

I also liked how Cobb set this story back just the right number of years so that she could put Sophie into one of those bad mortgage loans that were so popular during the 00s. This coincided perfectly with the rapid changes in the internet and computing, so Sophie's losing touch with those advances while taking care of her babies, worked perfectly with her losing clients and getting more financially in trouble. The real zingers that Cobb put in here were how she laid out possible honest avenues for Sophie's rescue, and then let Sophie be blind to them and continue down the dishonest route.

Cobb also succeeds in pulling us in with a very quickly flowing prose that has just the right amount of anxiety worked into text, laced with level amounts of regret and excitement for everything Sophie knows she's doing, both right and wrong. She also adds a smattering of nostalgia for the better times, and enough well-placed and unobtrusive sections of back-story to help us better understand Sophie's motives and personality. In short, this is Sophie's story from beginning to end.

I do have to say that I wasn't completely enamored with how Cobb ended this book. Cobb finishes with an abruptness that didn't feel as smooth as the rest of the book, and felt a touch incongruent. Not having everything tied up perfectly doesn't bother me, but as I turned to the last chapter, it felt I was missing something because of a time gap that took a while to figure out. However, this was the only drawback I found in this story.

For all of this, I'm certainly going to recommend this book. It is truly a fun romp, even if you feel a bit anxious at times while you're reading it. You'll quickly grow to love Sophie even when you hate some of the things she does. That makes her real, and that's exactly what a good female protagonist is supposed to feel like. If the ending had been just a little bit different, this would have gotten full marks, but four out of five stars is still a good rating.

"Objects of Her Affection" by Sonya Cobb is a Sourcebook Landmark publication, released August 12, 2014 available from, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), 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 for review via NetGalley. This is a version of my review that originally appeared on my Times of Israel blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Beneath the Black Hats and the Wigs

Invisible City by Julia Dahl

The police just found a naked woman's body in a Brooklyn scrap yard, and that's news. So the paper sends their newest stringer, Rebekah Roberts, to get the story. When she gets there, she finds herself in the midst of the exact same Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community her mother returned to when she abandoned Rebekah as a little girl. While getting the scoop on the murdered woman is her job, finding out about her own mother is off the clock. Rebekah's ambition to become a real reporter is tempered with the unease and possibility of solving her own mystery, her mother's 20 years of silence.

To tell the truth, crime novels aren't really my thing. However, being an American Jew living in Israel, I found the connection to the Ultra-Orthodox (aka Hassidic or Haredi) Jewish world drew me to this book. Theirs is a famous (or perhaps infamous) community, known for being insular and separatist to the extreme and that makes them fascinating. Their desire to remain separate also forces these communities to use whatever means possible to hide any imperfections that might make them liable to outside scrutiny. In a democracy, one means they use is their large blocks of practically guaranteed votes to elected officials who promise to ignore their internal goings on and organizations. When Rebekah sees the body of the dead woman taken away by a Jewish burial society instead of the Medical Examiner, questions arise. Of course, these lead Rebekah to discovering more about her mother's community, and those who attempt to leave it.

Dahl imbues her first person account with a gruffness that is well in keeping with the crime-beat journalism scene. While this might seem a touch too hard-boiled for such a young and new reporter, it does work well in the setting. This tone makes more sense when you realize Rebekah has lived her whole life estranged from her biological mother, with most of her feelings shrouded in various levels of anger and doubt. This is toughness is well tempered with a vulnerability that comes with her youth combined with the innate insecurity and intense motivation of someone embarking on their dream career. With this mixture, it then becomes reasonable that Rebekah is of two minds regarding finding her mother. In short, Dahl has brought us a marvelously developed and changing character that acts and reacts to her surroundings and the situations they present with a lovely balance of the expected and unexpected. There is no doubt that Dahl's Rebekah Roberts is exactly the type of protagonist that crime fiction readers will want to follow for several volumes (see below).

Dahl has also done a very good job dealing with writing about the Hasidic community. Often writers have a difficult time delving into a part of society that is the source of rumors and conjecture without coming up factually short. This community in particular hates opening its doors to investigation. Even when they do, their trepidation will often prevent researchers from getting too close to any uncomfortable truths. But Rebekah is technically Jewish and that does open some lines of hesitant communication that would otherwise be closed. My only problem with this premise is I'm not convinced they would have been quite as forthcoming, partially because of Rebekah's gender. Not that they're all tripping over themselves to reveal their dirty secrets, but one or two male characters did seem a bit more communicative with a female than expected. Still, this is hardly anything that most readers will notice, and I'm willing to believe that behavior among the ultra-orthodox in Israel that I've experienced in Israel isn't the same as those living in New York.

With the setting and characters all in place, what would a good crime drama be without a good plot? Dahl's murder here is what underlies this story, and in the best traditions of any mystery, she leads us down blind alleys and towards her eventual twist without revealing too much. In fact, her clues are so subtle that I was actually surprised to find out who the murderer was (and I'm usually very good at figuring these things out early on). Dahl does this with a very even pace throughout most of the book, so that when the climax finally comes she can let the adrenaline kick in, and take it all up a notch, making for a truly exciting reveal. 

This shows an exceptional talent for a debut novelist, and if Dahl can repeat this in her next novel, she'll be well on her way to becoming a superstar. All of this is to say that I have to give this book an extremely strong four and a half stars out of five, and highly recommend it, including people who don't usually read crime fiction. 

"Invisible City" by Julia Dahl, the first of her Rebekah Roberts's novels, published on May 20, 2014 by St. Martin's Press - Minotaur Books is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for giving me an advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley. This is a version of my Times of Israel Blog review, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Steaming Open a Family's Pandora's Box

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

On the morning that the 1976 heat in London was about to hit over 90oC for the 10th day in a row, Robert Riordan went out to buy a newspaper - just as he did every morning. Only this time, he didn't come home to the freshly baked Irish soda bread his wife Gretta made. As soon as Gretta figures out something is wrong, she calls her son Michael Francis. But his increasing problems at home prevent him from coming round right away. Her daughter Monica is more concerned about winning over her two new stepchildren than her father's disappearance, and Aiofe, Gretta's youngest is all the way over in New York. When it finally becomes obvious that this isn't just tardiness, all three children come together to help find their father - despite any differences they've had in the past. While looking for him, they uncover some painful information about themselves and the past.

Of O'Farrell's novels to date, this one is probably the most character driven, although all her previous books had vivid characters. I'd even go so far as to say that the portraits she draws of the people in her novels it is probably one of O'Farrell's greatest fortes. However, in this novel, it feels as if the circumstances that she develops to bring these people together are secondary to the characters themselves. For instance, we get more back-story on each of these people than we do in most of her novels. This isn't distracting, since these vignettes are essential to understanding these characters, and meld perfectly into the story as they radiate around the action. This could have been a downfall for this book, since the action here is actually very minimalistic. Often when writers deal with many interacting personalities, an equal number of situations help bring these elements to the forefront. However, O'Farrell decided not to go that route; instead, became emboldened by this challenge, showing just how much she has grown as a writer.

Of course, with many people to deal with, not all characters get equal attention. If there was one character that I felt was less fully drawn here, it would certainly be Robert. However, because his disappearance brings them all together, this makes perfect sense. He is the motivation in the background, and having him out of the picture throughout almost the entire book is what makes everyone else stand out so intensely.

Even so, it would be fair to say that O'Farrell deals with the rest of the individuals in the family on various levels. For instance, Gretta is portrayed almost as a victim here, and in that role, O'Farrell allows her to be the object of her children's attention. While we get to know some of what goes on in Gretta's head, because of her position in the story, she also ends up taking a somewhat secondary role. With this, the major concentration can then be on the three children and their relationships - with each other, with each of their parents, with others in their lives and with themselves.

While reading this novel it occurred to me that, each reader will find a different character to identify with. My personal sympathies were drawn to Aiofe (pronounced EE-fah, Irish for Eva), the youngest daughter who suffers from severe dyslexia. I have mild dyslexia so I know that in the 60s and 70s this was just gaining recognition in the USA as being a real condition. I don't know how the UK approached this problem during that time, but I'd be willing to guess it was similar to my experience. At that time, undiagnosed people who suffered from this disability let people think they were stupid and/or lazy, or hid their problem completely. Aiofe does the latter (as did I), and I was thrilled that O'Farrell did such a marvelous job describing Aiofe and how she viewed her dyslexia.

As usual, O'Farrell does this with her typical, deceptively simple, language. This style enchants the reader and allows the prose to flow like a gentle river, sweeping the reader along so that we hardly feel the pages flying by. At the same time, she pulls the reader under and into the lives of her characters, making us feel they are members of our own families. While admittedly this latest novel hasn't usurped my favorite (Esme Lennox), nor did it make me cry like her previous novel, I still have to highly recommend it and give it at least four and a half stars out of five. 

"Instructions for a Heatwave" 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 version of a review which originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady.)

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